Climate change mitigation efforts have been in the making in Northampton for years | Daily News Byte


NORTHAMPTON — As the region continues to rack up new temperature records, the city’s far-reaching, comprehensive approach to combating climate change has changed the streets and daily routines of citizens, as well as the scope and role of government.

To combat what they believe is an existential threat to the planet, city leaders have worked for years to reduce carbon emissions by diversifying transportation options and infrastructure, reducing the carbon footprint of existing buildings and new construction, planting and maintaining trees, and improving stormwater and flooding. control and a long list of other priorities involving every branch of local government.

Northampton’s goals are more ambitious than the state’s, as made clear in a series of documents that lay out a path to complete carbon neutrality in the city by 2050, the date when Massachusetts seeks neutrality only for the construction sector. Those city plans, however, were drawn up under previous mayor David Narkewicz, and current mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra has decided instead to aim for complete carbon neutrality by 2030.

“We heard from the public that the goals we set weren’t aggressive enough,” said Sarah LaVellie, assistant director in the city’s Office of Planning and Sustainability. “They wanted to be carbon neutral even earlier.”

Carbon neutrality means that all carbon dioxide emissions are offset by reductions elsewhere, such as 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.

Holistic thinking

In an interview in her City Hall office, Sciarra said local government is “really working to just have a city-wide conversation about this and that we all do 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 associate them with how it helps meet our energy goals, but there are connections (like) sidewalk repairs.”

Northampton’s 2021 Climate Resilience and Regeneration Plan — one element of the wider Comprehensive Plan for a Sustainable Northampton — referred to 2030 as the target date for carbon neutrality.

“More frequent temperatures, storm intensity, drought and flood risk will increasingly affect our infrastructure, ecosystems, agriculture and health,” the plan states. “Northampton needs to move forward as aggressively as we can as we work together to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (an 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 in the 128-year record period, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Of the 10 warmest Septembers on record, eight occurred in the last two decades.

The average August temperature was 74.1 degrees, the hottest 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 affect our infrastructure, ecosystems and health, including more frequent flooding, wear and tear on our roads, the spread of new invasive species, disruption to agriculture and increasing numbers of vector-borne diseases.”

Local resources

But the plan acknowledges its own limited influence on the global problem and the city’s reliance on policy decisions by state and federal officials. It also calls for strategies such as more cooling centers and the creation of a community resiliency center that would, among other functions, help people weather hot days and weather emergencies such as floods and ice storms during the winter months.

“Our region has definitely seen more ice storms, not snow, and increasing power outages,” LaVelli said. “There’s definitely more potential for flooding, not just from really big storms focused on the Connecticut River, but more localized street flooding that could also be a problem.”

After months of searching, it appears the Community Resilience Hub has finally found its home – the former First Baptist Church located at 289 Main St. The city exercised its option to purchase the building for $3.3 million in early December. The town held the first reading of a finance warrant to allocate $1 million from Northampton’s general fund to help purchase the property, and is scheduled to vote on whether to approve the warrant at its next meeting on Jan. 5.

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

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

Net zero emissions means that greenhouse gases are not burned, keeping them completely out of the atmosphere.

‘Global Alliance’

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

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

A geothermal system should be installed in City Hall, according to the Central Service report, to avoid the need to replace the water heater. The Puchalski Building behind City Hall, according to the report, is “very problematic and may be worth replacing.”

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

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

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

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

Sciarra said that planning is intricately intertwined with climate change mitigation and that 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 LaVellie, “are long-term thinkers about the future of the city,” she said.

“Northampton alone will not be able to reverse the climate crisis in this country or the world, but, firstly, we all need to do absolutely everything we can, no matter where we are, and secondly, we need to lead by example.” Sciarra said. “If we all do that, we can start to turn the ship around.”

Alexander MacDougall can be contacted at


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