Credit: Town of Needham

Last Wednesday, the Needham Climate Action Planning Committee officially released its roadmap for the town’s ongoing efforts to mitigate climate change and comply with state mandates aimed at achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The roadmap will serve as an advisory blueprint for the town to reduce its carbon emissions in several impact areas, including transportation and residential, commercial and municipal buildings. Its completion marks a feat of cross-sector collaboration and the start of a new phase for climate action in the town.

The roadmap has been two years in the making. In late 2022, the state rolled out its Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2050, a statewide set of targets and requirements for net zero carbon in the next 25 years. The Needham Select Board established the Climate Action Planning Committee (CAPC) to identify the steps and investments required.

At Wednesday’s well-attended public meeting held at Town Hall, Stephen Frail, chair of the soon-to-sunset CAPC, laid out a timeline of the committee’s lifecycle so far. It featured the big picture highlights: the committee’s formation in 2022, its research into the scope of Needham’s carbon emissions, the first draft of the roadmap and the public comment that followed, and the final version this year.

Between these milestones, the committee’s work involved extensive collaboration among more than 70 individuals from diverse perspectives, including Needham residents, community groups, volunteers, business owners and representatives, town staff and faith leaders, with consultancy from Kim Lundgren Associates. 

In total, the Climate Action Roadmap recommends 56 actions, grouped into six focus areas: clean energy, governance, natural resources and waste, net zero buildings, resilience and public health, and transportation. These actions are aimed at residents, businesses, and building owners, in addition to municipal staff. The CAPC found that municipal buildings and vehicles account for less than 3% of Needham’s greenhouse gas emissions.

It also identifies impacts of climate change that can or will likely be seen in Needham, including localized flooding, droughts and heat waves, which can result in property damage, power outages and other public safety concerns. 

Looking forward, the CAPC named four priorities for the coming fiscal year: supporting residents and building owners in electrification efforts; opting into a state program helping commercial and industrial property owners to finance clean energy initiatives; establishing an EV-first policy for town-owned and leased vehicles; and protecting Needham’s tree canopy, or the part of Needham covered by trees.

In determining these priorities, Frail said, “Low effort, high impact is the name of the game.” 

While celebrating the document’s robustness, Frail also emphasized what the roadmap is not: “It is not a mandate.” The document, a “proposed pathway,” has no regulatory teeth, meaning that each of the actions will be required to go through their standard town procedures and public processes to be implemented. This means that any actions pursued will ideally involve all stakeholders and truly be Needham’s own. It also means the process could take time. 

“It’s a balancing act,” says Frail. “It’s really only going to be successful depending on how many people we get to work towards these goals. There’s no way that the town can go it alone.”

One example of this balancing act is the case of the tree canopy. The roadmap advises that the town prioritize tree canopy protection, which could come in the form of tree bylaws regulating tree removal. Currently in Needham, tree removal is “a sort of Wild West,” says Frail, in part because this is a complex issue with regards to property rights and homeowners’ desire to protect their houses from fallen trees. 

Another key priority, outreach, will also aid in the difficult project of translating the roadmap into action. 

Gabrielle Queenan is the town’s first sustainability manager, a role established as one of CAPC’s first priorities in 2023. She says the upcoming outreach plan “focuses on residents and business owners with the hope of getting good information in their hands about rebates and helping to dispel any myths about electrification.” Simply put, the goal is “making electrification as easy as possible.”

Queenan says this work will include partnership with community grassroots groups such as Green Needham, which was previously involved in a solar outreach campaign. Says Queenan of community groups in Needham — and folks working on climate action across the state — “We have good peers to learn from and collaborate with.” 

Queenan hopes this outreach program will also help reach a broader group of community members, who may not be as familiar with climate action. “The challenge now,” she says, “will be going beyond the friendly faces and the folks who are maybe already interested or plugged in to sustainability, and reaching that next level.”

Attendees of the CAPC meeting Wednesday evening chimed in with questions but also ideas for residents and homeowners curious about electrification. 

The CAPC will be dissolving later this month, having completed its charter by finalizing the roadmap. The committee will be replaced by the Climate Action Committee, whose member appointments were finalized by the Select Board at its Wednesday meeting. The new Climate Action Committee, set to convene later this summer, will similarly serve as an advisory committee to the town, now turning from planning to implementation. 

With this next phase of climate action, Frail reminds Needham residents that the roadmap is “a living document that everybody in town owns.” He encourages town members to continue providing feedback to the Climate Action Committee, which will reevaluate the roadmap every five years and report on progress to the Select Board annually.

Says Frail, “The more people who see this as their Climate Action Roadmap, and then take their own individual actions, and then help spur others to do the same, the more successful we will be in reaching our goals.”

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