Amherst Town Council all in on climate goals

  • Amherst Regional High School students lead a lunchtime walkout to a rally on the Amherst Common as part of the global Fridays For Future movement to protest lack of action on climate change on Friday, March 15, 2019. FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 11/19/2019 3:40:41 PM

AMHERST — With a unanimous vote by the Town Council Monday, Amherst officials will embark on significantly reducing the town’s greenhouse gas emissions and making the town carbon neutral within 30 years.

Following two hours of discussion, though with little debate about the merits of the objectives, the council voted 13-0 to support three goals brought forward by the Energy and Climate Action Committee.

The first two quantifiable goals are a 50 percent reduction in townwide greenhouse gas emissions below fiscal year 2016 by 2030, with an interim goal to meet 25 percent reductions by 2025, and becoming carbon neutral no later than 2050.

Laura Draucker, chairwoman of the Energy and Climate Action Committee, said the rationale for these goals is based on science embedded in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October 2018 report that such measures are needed to have any chance of keeping the global temperature rise at or below 1.5 Celsius.

“It’s ambitious because it’s going to be hard,” Draucker said.

But she said the committee felt confident that Amherst can meet the goals through both individual actions of residents, support from the institutions in town, including the University of Massachusetts, and broader changes.

“Ideally, we’re moving more toward system changes,” Draucker said.

The council also endorsed a goal to have Amherst be prepared to achieve carbon neutrality as early as 2030, which is in line with objectives outlined in the federal Green New Deal.

“We’d like to say Amherst is ready to be a Green New Deal community,” Draucker said, adding that “radical change” is coming.

Among those who spoke in favor of the goals was retired Fort River School Principal Russ Vernon-Jones, who said any delay will increase costs and exacerbate disruptions.

“Only goals that stretch beyond our current capacity will stimulate innovation and creativity,” Vernon-Jones said.

He suggested that Amherst should try to be carbon neutral well in advance of 2050.

The suggestion to speed up Amherst becoming carbon neutral was also made by Amherst Regional High School students who are part of the Environmental Action Club.

Seo-Ho Lee, a high school senior, said she hopes Amherst would strive to become carbon negative, meaning the town would be sequestering more emissions than it is putting out.

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said many in Amherst are wondering how adopting these goals will affect them.

“Ambitious goals are good because they force all of us to reach,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg said it is uncertain whether there will be more expense for townspeople, homeowners and renters, observing that there are cost factors that are unknown.

Draucker said in her experience, pursuing such goals can mean both cost savings and added costs. She said renters and landlords could enter into green leasing arrangements that both reduce costs and save energy.

District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont said costs are unknowable because the extent of federal and state help, as well as technological advances that might happen, can’t be foreseen.

At-Large Councilor Mandi Hanneke was the lone councilor to express concern that the goals might not be achievable, while District 3 Councilor George Ryan wondered whether Amherst College, Hampshire College and UMass could be compelled by the town action. But Draucker said all three institutions have set more lofty goals of being carbon neutral and would likely help the town in its efforts.

Committee Vice Chairwoman Andra Rose said that outreach in the community found strong support for the goals.

“Everyone’s interested in going forward,” Rose said. 

The next phase will focus on transportation, such as electric vehicles, building energy use and renewable energy, including Community Choice Aggregation.

Hanneke made a motion to refer the goals to the Community Resources Committee and Finance Committee to give a more comprehensive review in 45 days. That was defeated by a 12-1.

“To spend another 45 days on these three goals seems wasteful,” said District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis​​​​​.​

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said that with the goals adopted, a series of policies and other decisions that the Town Council will have to evaluate should now be set in motion.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said she had no problem supporting the goals but noted she is more concerned that they will force specific decisions for the Town Council to take up, such as the recent decision to buy a conventional gas-powered school bus, rather than an electric school bus.

“Nagging me about the school bus decision is not helping me forward,” Brewer said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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