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Chapter 13

Municipal Government and Climate Change

Climate change is a global challenge experienced at the local level, and local governments have an important role in addressing the causes and effects of a changing climate. Extreme weather events, demands on infrastructure, public health impacts, migration, and effects on agriculture are all examples of local impacts from a global issue. Fortunately, quite a number of resources and tools are available to help communities reduce their carbon footprint and adapt to and plan for present and future climate impacts.

While the Select Board may not have direct authority over certain areas of climate action planning, it is important for board members, as the elected leaders of the town, to be aware of the resources available and the trends in local government climate action in order to help lead local efforts. It’s also important to understand that this is an evolving area of concern for all levels of government. Towns experience new challenges and new opportunities, and have created new areas of responsibility for staff and committees. It is important for towns to approach this topic strategically and to seek consensus.

Climate Mitigation

Climate mitigation refers to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to lessen the impacts of climate change. Climate scientists have made it clear that the world needs to reduce global greenhouse gas pollution to net zero by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. The planet has already warmed by about 1 degree Celsius since humans began burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas in large quantities in the mid-1800s. Scientists project that the worst impacts of climate change can be avoided if we can keep overall warming below 1.5 C. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 special report, “Global Warming of 1.5°C,” in order to give ourselves a chance to limit global warming to 1.5 C worldwide, we will need to reduce GHG pollution by 45% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. In other words, there is a limited “carbon budget,” or cumulative amount of GHG pollution, that can be emitted without passing 1.5 C of warming.

There are many solutions that towns can implement to reduce how we contribute to climate change through activities such as energy consumption for residential or commercial uses and transportation.

Climate Law and Green Communities Act

An omnibus climate change law enacted in 2021 codified the state’s commitment to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The law, called An Act Creating a Next-Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy, mandates a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2030 and a 75% reduction by 2040. In alignment with these statutory goals, many municipalities have started planning for a net-zero future for their community.

The 2021 climate law was a follow-up to the Green Communities Act, enacted in 2008, which overhauled the state’s energy policies in order to promote renewable energy (e.g., solar, wind), as well as conservation and efficiency, and to decrease reliance on fossil fuels. The Green Communities Act requires municipalities to adopt energy-efficient building codes, provides for long-term contracts for the purchase of renewable energy, and allows metering in two directions (net metering), allowing surplus energy generated by a renewable source to be sold back to the electrical grid.

The Green Communities Act allows municipalities to own renewable energy facilities and grants authority to issue bonds to finance their construction. It also provides for as-of-right siting for renewable or alternative energy facilities (both generating and manufacturing) for qualified green communities in designated areas, and further encourages communities to develop clean energy resources by providing up to $10 million per year in assistance to municipalities.

The Green Communities Act established the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Auction Trust Fund, and the law requires that 80% of auction proceeds go to energy efficiency programs. The law provides several options for municipal governments relating to technical assistance and procurement. The Green Community Designation and Grant Program provides a road map, along with financial and technical support, to municipalities that pledge to cut municipal energy use by 20% over five years and meet four other criteria established in the Green Communities Act. The Department of Energy Resources website has more details about Green Communities.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council has also developed tools to assist municipalities as they consider planning for a net zero future, including the Net Zero Planning web area and its online Municipal Net Zero Playbook.

The Northeast Clean Energy Council has published a free guide to help municipal leaders navigate the complexities of the transition to a clean energy future.

Energy, Transportation and Housing

Energy distribution and production, to the degree that it is under municipal authority or influence, are important to climate strategy. Many communities are regulating fossil fuel infrastructure or seeking to promote renewable energy sources through aggregation programs. These efforts are best advanced in a strategic context in order to make changes with the broadest possible basis of support.

Similarly, transportation is a significant contributor to climate change, and cities and towns are increasingly seeking ways to promote electrification of public fleets, support public electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and encourage non-motorized transportation such as bicycling and walking. Town leaders should coordinate these efforts among departments and committees.

Finally, a town’s housing policy should be aligned with climate policy. Housing production and priorities can be designed to minimize climate impacts from energy use, transportation demands, and the effects of extreme weather.

Climate Adaptation

Climate adaptation refers to planning and improvements related to the impacts of climate change that are occurring and have become unavoidable. These impacts can include, but are not limited to, extreme heat, sea level rise, overland flooding, and increased intensity and frequency of storms.

The Commonwealth created the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program to provide support for cities and towns to conduct the process of planning for climate change resiliency and implementing priority projects. The program provides funding to help towns complete vulnerability assessments and develop and implement action-oriented resiliency plans. The MVP website has descriptions of all action grant projects that have received funds.

ResilientMass, a “climate change clearinghouse” for Massachusetts, is a gateway to data and information relevant to climate change adaptation and mitigation across the Commonwealth. Created by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, ResilientMass provides local climate change science and tools for local planners, practitioners, policy-makers and the public to support decision making that enhances climate resilience.

The Massachusetts Climate Change Assessment, published in 2022, details how the state’s residents, environments and infrastructure may be affected by climate change and related hazards through the end of the century. In the fall of 2023, the Healey-Driscoll administration released a 360-page hazard mitigation and climate adaptation plan — the ResilientMass Plan — that details 142 actions to be taken across state agencies, including the creation of an Office of Climate Science. In early 2023, Gov. Maura Healey also created the first cabinet-level Climate Chief position in the country.


Climate Mitigation

Climate Law and Green Communities Act

Climate Adaptation

MMA's Handbook for Massachusetts Select Boards: Chapter 13: Last Updated: March 23, 2024
MMA's Handbook for Massachusetts Select Boards: Last Updated: March 25, 2024
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MMA's Handbook for Massachusetts Select Boards: Chapter 13: Last Updated: March 23, 2024


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