Northampton’s climate change mitigation work years in the making

NORTHAMPTON — As the region continues to rack up new temperature records, the city’s far-reaching, all-hands-on-deck approach to battling climate change has altered streetscapes and citizens’ daily routines, as well as the scope and role of government.

To fight what they believe is an existential threat to the planet, city leaders have worked for years to lower carbon emissions by diversifying transportation options and infrastructure, reducing the carbon impact of existing buildings and new construction, planting and maintaining trees, improving stormwater and flood control, and a long list of other priorities that involve every arm of local government.

The targets set by Northampton are more ambitious than the state’s goals, as is made clear in a series of documents that lay out a path to total carbon neutrality in the city by 2050, the date that Massachusetts is seeking neutrality only for the building sector. Those city plans, however, were developed under previous Mayor David Narkewicz and incumbent Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra has chosen to aim for full carbon neutrality by 2030 instead.

“We heard from the public that the goals we were setting weren’t aggressive enough,” said Sarah LaValley, the assistant director at the Planning & Sustainability office for the city. “They wanted to be carbon neutral even sooner.”

Carbon neutrality means that any carbon dioxide emissions are offset by reductions elsewhere, such as through planting trees that will remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, carbon dioxide accounted for about 79% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in 2020.

Thinking holistically

In an interview in her City Hall office, Sciarra said the local government is “working really hard to just have a citywide conversation about this and have us all be doing all of our work through that lens” of climate change mitigation.

She said city leaders and department heads are “trying to think more holistically. For example, some of these projects, maybe people wouldn’t automatically connect it to how it helps meet our energy goals, but there are connections (like) doing sidewalk repairs.”

The 2021 Northampton Climate Resilience & Regeneration Plan — one element of the broader Sustainable Northampton Comprehensive Plan — urged 2030 as the carbon neutrality target date.

“More frequent higher temperatures, storm intensity, drought risk, and flooding will increasingly take a toll on our infrastructure, ecosystems, agriculture, and health,” the plan reads. “Northampton needs to move forward as aggressively as we can, as we collectively work towards limiting global climate warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels (the accepted target used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018, and others).”

With an average temperature of 62.4 degrees Fahrenheit, September 2022 was the 25th warmest month on record dating back 128 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Of the top 10 warmest Septembers on record, eight were in the past two decades.

The average temperature in August was 74.1 degrees, the warmest on record and 6.5 degrees warmer than the average monthly temperature.

“As a result of climate change, Northampton is experiencing increasing mean temperatures and more intense storms,” the climate plan states. “These changes are taking a toll on our infrastructure, ecosystems, and health, including more frequent flood events, wear and tear on our roads, spread of new invasive species, disruptions to farming, and increasing vector-borne disease.”

Local resources

But the plan acknowledges its own limited impact on a global problem and the city’s reliance on policy decisions from state and federal officials. It also calls for strategies like more cooling centers and the creation of a Community Resilience Hub that, among other functions, would help people get through high-temperature days and climate emergencies like flooding and ice storms during the winter months.

“Our region has definitely seen more ice storms rather than snow, and increasing power outages,” said LaValley. “There’s definitely more flooding potential, not only from really big storms focused on the Connecticut River, but also more localized street flooding that could present issues as well.”

After months of searching, a Community Resilience Hub seems to have finally found its home – the former First Baptist Church located at 289 Main St. The city executed an option to purchase the building at the beginning of December, for a price of $3.3 million. The city held a first reading of a financial order to appropriate $1 million from the Northampton’s general fund to help purchase the property, and is scheduled to vote on whether to approve the order on its next meeting on Jan. 5.

As she crafts her latest Capital Improvement Program — a five-year proposal for physical projects and items that cost more than $10,000 and can be funded by available cash or through borrowing — Sciarra has instructed all department heads to submit spending requests that lower, offset or eliminate the use of greenhouse gases.

The City Council authorizes spending for each project individually and the plan is updated every year as work is completed and new proposals are submitted. Sciarra unveiled the first iteration last year, asking for new hybrid and electric city vehicles along with money to finish an ongoing net-zero emissions planning study of every government building and school.

Net-zero emission means that no greenhouse gases are burned, keeping them out of the atmosphere altogether.

‘Global alliance’

Northampton is a member of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, which describes itself as “the largest global alliance for city climate leadership, built upon the commitment of over 11,500 cities and local governments” representing more than 1 billion people. According to the organization, 70% of Northampton’s greenhouse gas emissions come from its buildings, 26% come from transportation and 4% come from waste management.

An April report from the Central Services department analyzed seven city buildings and recommended creating a centralized geothermal system for City Hall, Memorial Hall, the Academy of Music and the Puchalski Municipal Building. More studies are planned on buildings including public schools.

A geothermal system should be installed at City Hall, the Central Services report found, to avoid the need to replace the boiler. The Puchalski building behind City Hall, according to the report, is “highly problematic and may be worth replacing.”

Sciarra said she wants to be “very aggressive” in addressing the city’s goals, but as the steward of a $126 million budget, she needs to make “smart choices” about prioritizing large, expensive projects.

Smith College, which is not a city entity, is in the midst of installing a geothermal system. A $200 million project to replace heating and cooling systems campus-wide is designed to lower carbon emissions by 90% and make the college carbon neutral by 2030.

Central Services also suggested modifications to Forbes Library and the fire and police departments. In total, the improvements to the seven buildings would cost $13.38 million and reduce the aggregate carbon output by about 86% over 30 years. In recent years, a new Police Department headquarters and Senior Center were built to high standards of energy efficiency.

The City Council in October authorized Sciarra to ask the state for special legislation that would require all new construction or substantial remodeling in the city to be done without the use of fossil fuels. At this point, there is no indication when such a bill could be drafted or considered.

Sciarra said that planning is intricately entwined with climate change mitigation and the relevant city department “is called ‘planning and sustainability’ for a reason.” Officials in the Department of Planning and Sustainability, led by Carolyn Misch and LaValley, are “the long-term thinkers,” she said, about the city’s future.

“Northampton alone is not going to be able to reverse the climate crisis in this country or the world, but, one, we all have to do absolutely everything we possibly can, no matter where we are, and two, we should lead by example,” Sciarra said. “If we all do that, we can start turning the ship around.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.