Amherst Town Council eyes committee to combat climate change

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/9/2019 12:13:25 AM

AMHERST — A town committee could soon be making recommendations for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in Amherst and identifying how to prepare the community for the effects of climate change, including what is expected to be wetter and warmer weather. 

The Town Council on Monday spent more than an hour discussing the formation of an Energy and Climate Resilience Committee, legislation drafted by District 5 Councilor Darcy Dumont and District 4 Councilor Evan Ross. The committee would recommend dates by which Amherst will become carbon neutral and electricity used will come from entirely renewable sources, as well as setting benchmarks for carbon emission reductions.

All 13 councilors appeared to support creating the committee, according to Town Council President Lynn Griesemer, though an actual vote would not happen until at least the council’s Jan. 28 meeting, after the proposal is reviewed by the council’s governance, organization and legislation committee.

Dumont said climate change is an emergency and local action is needed, immediately, to stave off its devastating effects. “Amherst needs to act as a municipal energy and climate leader,” Dumont said.

Dumont said other cities and towns are requiring solar on commercial buildings, putting solar canopies over parking lots and transitioning their municipal fleets to electric vehicles. In addition, some have formed committees focused on climate change, like in Northampton, which has an Energy & Sustainability Commission.

The first piece of legislation for the town council, she added, has been on the drawing board for more than a year. She described it as an “exciting and positive act of unity.”

As written, the committee’s charge is that within 90 days of being formed it will set dates certain “by which Amherst shall achieve carbon neutrality, eliminating all net greenhouse gas emissions in Amherst that originate from electricity, heating, Amherst-based and Amherst vehicle transportation and other energy-consuming sectors” and “by which Amherst residential, commercial institutional and municipal electricity shall be sourced from 100 percent renewable energy.”

Amherst has already pursued initiatives such as Solarize Amherst and ValleyBike Share, and become part of the state’s Green Communities program, but Dumont said there is a long way to go to meet ambitious goals.

Ross said resiliency will be more about planning and determining whether the town's stormwater systems can handle more powerful storms and whether the town’s vulnerable populations will be able to stay cool during extended heat waves.

Ross said the committee would also work with the institutional partners in town, including the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and Hampshire College, and other local agencies, to establish objectives.

Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said the work of the committee needs to be infused in everything the town does.  “We're excited about this initiative,” Ziomek said.

Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie  Ciccarello said the committee can supplement the town’s climate action plan put together in 2005, and advance the town’s participation in the Green Communities program, which has focused on reducing town greenhouse gas emissions. 

These efforts include a $500,000-plus project to install LED streetlights. But Ciccarello said it is a challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, noting that between 2011 and 2016 townwide reductions were minimal.

“A big, lofty goal now is to try to achieve carbon neutrality,” Ciccarello said.

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said his only concern is that the committee’s work could have a negative financial impact on residents, businesses and institutions, and he worries about imposing high costs on them through the committee’s work, rather through than a town bylaw.

The committee will have nine members, including two councilors and seven people from the community.

Andra Rose, a member of Mothers Out Front, praised the move toward getting the committee in place, observing that Amherst Town Meeting two years ago passed a resolution that called for Amherst to move to 100 percent renewable energy.

“We need a bold plan for moving toward 100 percent renewable energy, or carbon neutrality, as we resolved to do in 2017,” Rose said.

Lenore Bryck of Strong Street encouraged the Town Council to think even bigger, pointing out that being carbon neutral might not be enough. Bryck said the committee might want to explore whether Amherst can be carbon negative, in which carbon is sunk back into the land.

Russ Vernon-Jones of Gaylord Street said Amherst can do things locally if no barriers are put up in the process. He said the recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows that countries have to reduce current emissions by 45 percent by 2030 to prevent the most concerning impacts of climate change. “That's an immense task, but it's possible,” Vernon-Jones said.

And any work will come with no support from White House, he said. 

“Local action is particularly important in the United States because the action at the federal level is all in the wrong direction,” Vernon-Jones said.

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


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