Opinion guest column

Cambridge’s own Green New Deal

How Cambridge is working to build a more sustainable future

As we barrel toward irreversible damage to our climate, it becomes more and more critical to lower emissions and make way for a clean energy future. Over the summer, Congress finally passed legislation, referred to as the “Inflation Reduction Act,” in order to help spur electrification and renewable energy development. However, as Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan ’95 said in an interview with MIT Divest, “in order for the money to be put to work, there need to be local frameworks.”  Indeed, Zondervan is proposing one such framework: the Cambridge Green New Deal (GND), legislation to build a more equitable and sustainable future in Cambridge.

The main intent of the GND is to lower emissions from commercial buildings (including many owned and operated by MIT), which Zondervan says account for a majority of Cambridge’s total emissions. In order to encourage commercial interests to lower their emissions, the GND will impose a fine of $254 for every ton of CO2 emitted by new non-residential buildings.

The revenue from these fines will partially fund a second part of the GND, the Green Jobs Ordinance, which will provide free green jobs training programs for lower-income residents of Cambridge. These jobs will include renewable energy development, building emissions reduction, electrification, and urban agriculture. In doing so, “we would use those funds to create economic opportunity for our low income and minority residents who are largely left out of the innovation economy,” Zondervan said, adding, “It’s a double injustice, in that all this pollution is happening in their neighborhoods and then they’re not even getting the economic benefit of that.”

Therefore, through the GND, Zondervan hopes to work toward eliminating both the economic and environmental injustices caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Despite the clear benefits of this proposal, some groups remain opposed. According to Zondervan, “The biggest barriers are the commercial interests, because they don’t want to pay for their pollution … And MIT is a big player in that interest group, so it’s really important for the MIT students to be aware of the role that MIT is playing in that conversation.”

For example, in a letter to Mayor Siddiqui, MIT and other institutions such as Harvard and the Cambridge City of Commerce argued for amendments allowing the use of carbon offsets to meet their net-zero commitment instead of actually reducing emissions. By buying carbon offsets, institutions can “lower” their carbon footprint by financing carbon capture or emissions reductions in other parts of the world.

While carbon offsets are possibly part of the solution to climate change, they are also a method of greenwashing: presented as environmentally friendly while still emitting literal tons of CO2. Carbon offsets allow institutions to continue to pollute locally while claiming to lower their emissions. Funding groups to solve problems elsewhere should be no excuse for not changing behavior here and now, and businesses must keep their promises — MIT is no exception.

So why should you, a busy MIT student, care? Firstly, the planet’s future is your future, too. The world at large must soon cease releasing greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, and as part of that world, Cambridge must do its part to reduce its own emissions. Additionally, the GND is also a way to right the wrongs done to historically marginalized communities by giving them more opportunities in the green new economy.

As a Cambridge resident, your voice is important. Without it, the GND may not get enough votes to pass. The main way to show support would be to email the city council directly at council@cambridgema.gov. It doesn’t have to be much; as Zondervan said, “Even just a one-paragraph email explaining why you support the Green New Deal for Cambridge would be helpful.”

If you’d like to learn more about the GND, MIT Divest is holding a teach-in with Councillor Zondervan next week; find out details and RSVP via our form (forms.gle/gnXzaz42iGMKg2CJ6)! There is also a public hearing on November 22 about the GND, and we encourage you to sign up to comment over Zoom at the hearing if you’d like to make your thoughts heard. Further details are available on the Cambridge City Council website at tinyurl.com/gnd-hearing-11-22.

For more information on the Cambridge Green New Deal and future hearings, visit www.cambridgegnd.org.

Max Miller is a first-year undergraduate student and member of MIT Divest.