College, city work toward climate damage mitigation

By Vivi Smilgius

As the world feels the effects of climate change, Boston attempts to limit damages—but the question of whether its action plan is adequate remains unanswered.

The city’s climate action plan, released in 2019, charts a path to carbon neutrality by 2050 through reducing carbon emissions in buildings and transportation. Like other higher education institutions in Massachusetts, Emerson has pledged to limit its emissions. Harvard University set the closest deadline for fossil fuel neutrality in 2026, while Emerson seeks carbon neutrality by 2030; Boston University and Tufts University pledged carbon neutrality by 2040 and 2050, respectively.

Along with its commitment to carbon neutrality, Emerson’s Sustainability Manager Jennifer Lamy said, Emerson purchases renewable energy credits, which essentially fund renewable energy sources. These credits allow the college to operate at an “energy carbon neutral” capacity in terms of its direct emissions.

According to Lamy, Emerson creates fewer emissions than other area schools partly because of its location downtown and its small student body. The college’s downtown location means it is easily accessible via public transportation, limiting the number of students, staff, and faculty who commute via car. However, commuting students, staff, and faculty contribute to the college’s indirect emissions.

While the college is focused on limiting its car commuters, explained Lamy, it is also ensuring storage space for bikes and incentivized public transportation through discounted MBTA cards. 

The college also takes other climate initiatives, including composting a large portion of its food waste. Emerson falls under Boston’s commercial food material disposal ban, which limits the amount of waste facilities producing large quantities can dispose of.

While she acknowledged the importance of composting in mitigating carbon footprints, Dr. Amruta Nori-Sarma, an assistant professor of environmental health at Boston University, said food waste could also be considered “an opportunity for local solutions.” 

“Food waste and food scarcity counterbalance each other,” she said. “One of the efforts I’ve seen in ways to distribute food waste is by not really conceptualizing it as food waste but as providing leftover food to community members that might have a need for additional nutrition.”

Carol Oldham, a climate campaign consultant and former executive director of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network—a self-proclaimed “hardcore climate activist”—says food waste isn’t as large of a cause of pollution as it may seem. Though it’s a “front of mind” issue for many, Oldham said the Boston area’s mandate against large quantities of food waste ensures it is not a large source of pollution. 

However, Nori-Sarma noted there are plenty of other sources of pollution in the area, many of which come from everyday “lifestyle choices” made by Americans.

“We’re all members of the same communities,” she said. “The carbon footprint that we have on a per capita basis is much higher than a lot of other places around the world because of the lifestyle choices we enjoy making.”

Students and Boston residents can benefit the environment around them by being “educated consumers,” said Nori-Sarma. Considering the effects of consumption can lead to more ethical and environmentally friendly spending choices, including travel, dining, and shopping.

“How we participate in consumption can be really impactful,” Nori-Sarma said. “There’s so many different ways that we can make little decisions in the margins that may have a bigger impact together.”

Nori-Sarma commended the city’s attempts to mitigate climate damages—noting its plan accounts for vulnerable communities who will suffer more severe consequences of climate change, like people of color, the elderly, and the poor. 

However, she admitted to feeling skepticism about whether current climate initiatives are enough to respond to the damage sweeping the nation—literally—by storm. 

“The pessimistic side of me knows that with the severity of the issues we’re facing, yesterday wouldn’t be soon enough, but the optimistic side says some action towards reducing our carbon emissions is better than nothing,” Nori-Sarma said.

Massachusetts has already felt the effects of climate change, including extreme winter weather like this year’s record-breaking blizzard. The state has followed Boston in its demand for cleaner energy, though its efforts have been less than successful. In 2015, the state released its plan to get 300,000 zero-emission vehicles on the roads by 2025; as of March 2022, the state had registered just over 50,000 electric vehicles, rendering it severely behind on its plan. 

The focus on pollution caused by traffic stems from the direct effects of such pollutants on human health, Nori-Sarma said. Those living in close proximity to roads or nearby airports may suffer from particles released from exhaust pipes or jet fuel combustion. Boston residents and city-dwellers around the world have already begun experiencing the adverse effects of transportation pollutants, illustrating the need for cleaner travel as soon as possible.

Boston’s high population of students and young people are both directly affected by the adverse effects of climate change and complicit in causing them—as consumers, travelers, students, activists, and voters.

Lamy said that while young people can and should make small lifestyle changes, the best way to mitigate negative environmental impacts is through involvement in public policy and local government. 

“Staying educated as voters…is probably the number one thing we can do to make sure we have the structures and the politicians in place to make these policies a priority,” Lamy said. “That’s a lot stronger than any individual action.”

Oldham agreed, urging students to “get involved in Boston.”

“They’re working on putting together the Green New Deal for Boston,” said Oldham. “Emerson students should totally be involved in that… [Student] voices should be heard.”