Proposed by-law to decrease carbon emissions

A house on Waverly Street undergoing a gut renovation. A truck-mounted machine (right) is installing ground-source heat pumps, an efficient natural gas alternative. Under the warrant article, similar construction projects would be required to electrify instead of installing natural gas infrastructure. GRAHAM KREWINGHAUS/SAGAMORE STAFF.

Both in Brookline and around the globe, more and more people are becoming increasingly concerned about the climate as global warming and pollution are seen by many to be worsening daily. Although the federal government does not seem to share the same concern for what many are labeling a ‘crisis’ or even a ‘catastrophe,’ some in Brookline’s municipal government aim to make strides in reducing the town’s carbon footprint, hoping other towns and cities in Massachusetts and across the nation will follow.

Warrant Article 21 reflects this growing sense of climate urgency in both the high school and the town. The article seeks to cut down Brookline’s carbon emissions by ending the use of new fossil fuel infrastructure. Although it may seem like a big step, it is only the first of many towards the goal of zero emissions.

According to Town Meeting Member, co-petitioner and architect Lisa Cunningham, the article is necessary for Brookline to meet what climate scientists say is the bare minimum.

“In order to reduce our carbon emissions to zero by 2050 and to 50 percent by 2030, we have to stop using oil and gas. There’s no other solution. We can’t just turn off the faucet at 2030 or 2040 or 2050, we have to plan for it now,” Cunningham said. “So our warrant article is just saying that when people are building a new building, or they’re doing a significant renovation and they are moving, changing or installing new gas or oil infrastructure, that’s the simplest time to actually go all electric, because there’s no point in installing a system that you actually know that you need to be removing.”

The article, which Town Meeting passed on Nov. 20 but needs approval from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, mandates that no ‘New Buildings or Significant Rehabilitations’ make use of fossil fuel infrastructure, for heating or otherwise. This mandate would not apply to cooking, backup generators and extensions of existing heating systems, among other things. Cunningham said that because the existing infrastructure would be replaced anyway in these projects, the article is essentially cost-neutral.

“When you’re doing it in the course of major construction, [like] building a new building, or building a new house, or doing a gut renovation, replacing your system is part of your construction cost anyway. You are already going to spend that money,” Cunningham said. “But if you’re not doing it anyway, then it’s a significant hurdle to say you need to replace your system.”

Cunningham also said that although her team expects pushback, they have been careful not to ask too much and ‘overstep’ in the eyes of some residents.

“We’re not requiring anybody to change anything. That’s a really important part of this bill,” Cunningham said. “People don’t like to be told what to do, so we’re not telling them what to do. Except when they are moving or replacing their gas or oil infrastructure.”

Many students at the high school have been involved in promoting the warrant article. Amnesty International, Sunrise Movement and the Food Justice club have organized events such as a recent cook-in to encourage induction, cooking. Food Justice club co-leader and senior Gigi Walsh said that the article lines up with a lot of the club’s interests.

“The warrant article is obviously part of a larger sustainability initiative in Brookline, which we want to support in any way that we can, because it’s important to us and it’s something that our club really values,” Walsh said. “So it made sense for us to support the warrant article and take action on that front.”

Food Justice co-leader and senior Grace Sokolow said that even though the climate crisis can be discouraging, it is critical that, as a community, we mobilize and fight for change.

The Amnesty International Club is using this poster to raise awareness about the Warrant Article 21 by-law, which passed Town Meeting on Nov. 20. CONTRIBUTED BY RACHEL LEE

“I think a lot of people feel powerless right now, and feel hopeless, and feel like whatever they do, it’s not going to be enough. And that’s really scary to me. If we all say that whatever we do isn’t going to make a difference, we have no hope,” Sokolow said. “But if we try, and we keep working at it, and we keep bringing more and more people into the discussion and into the activism, we will make some change, and it’ll be our future selves benefiting from it. This is not an abstract thing. There’s a lot of things I want to do in my life, and none of them are going to be possible if we don’t have a sustainable climate.”

Walsh said that the warrant article cannot be the end of the story and that much more needs to happen, but a lot of it falls to individual households.

“This warrant article is super important because it’s going to ensure changes in institutions that we absolutely need,” Walsh said. “And in addition to that, we need individuals and communities to take responsibility and actively participate in the sustainability initiative.”

The article would be the first in the country to address renovations and second to mandate electrifying new buildings, behind Berkeley, California. According to Cunningham, however, one of the goals is that this legislation spreads.

“We have a lot of towns and cities behind us. We might be the first, but a lot are poised to follow us,” Cunningham said. “Cambridge, Newton, Lexington, Somerville, they’re all really interested in what we’re doing. It’s not just us alone in Brookline.”

Sokolow said it is critical that other towns follow Brookline.

“It’s a double-edged sword, in that Brookline can’t combat climate change on its own, and Brookline can’t wait for other towns to do it,” Sokolow said. “So we’re hoping this warrant article will show towns nearby that this is a feasible piece of legislature to pass and that you should be doing this, and then hopefully that will send a message to the state and the country.”