In addition to tackling climate change and focusing on sustainable development, the City of Boston is also working "to preserve and enhance the built and natural environment, to promote affordable, efficient, reliable and safe energy systems, and to provide clean, green, safe and accessible open space for residents and visitors."
Alumnus Austin Blackmon, A.B. '07, M.B.A. '13, is leading these efforts as Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space. At Harvard, Austin was dedicated to sustainability, leading the Council of Student Sustainability Leaders and contributing to the creation of the Harvard Sustainability Plan. At COP-21 in December, Austin accepted the 2015 C40 Cities Award for the City of Boston's community engagement work on initiatives like Greenovate Boston, Renew Boston, and the partnership with the Green Ribbon Commission, of which Harvard is a member.
The Office for Sustainability recently had the opportunity to talk with Austin about his first year in office, his accomplishments and challenges, and his vision for the city.
Office for Sustainability: You’ve just hit the one year mark, as Chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space for the City of Boston, congratulations! How was your first year? Can you talk about some of the highlights/challenges? What surprised you most about working for the city?
Austin Blackmon: Thank you, I am amazed that a year has gone by already. We’ve accomplished so many exciting things so it’s hard to pinpoint any one highlight but if I had to choose, being recognized at the C40 Awards during COP-21 for our community engagement efforts was extremely fulfilling and is a testament to the hard work our staff puts in every day to increasing awareness and enacting change on a local level.
The biggest surprise that I’ve found is how quickly international attention is filtering down to the municipal level and the amount of coordination we’ve seen between cities, even in nations that do not have a historical record of climate champions. This is evidenced by recent agreements that Mayor Walsh has signed like the Compact of Mayors, the US-China Partnership, and others.
OFS: What led you to a career in climate/energy and government? And specifically, how did your time at Harvard influence your path?
AB: In undergrad, I studied government and economics. My path to this career started in an internship on Capitol Hill, working for then-Senator Barack Obama. He told me that if I want to make a real difference in the world, I need to look to three critical issues: national security, education, or energy. I learned as much as I could in each field and decided that I could make a real difference in the energy sector.
He [Barack Obama] told me that if I want to make a real difference in the world, I need to look to three critical issues: national security, education, or energy.
OFS: You attended the Paris Climate Talks this past November, what were some of the big takeaways for you?
AB: One of the most obvious takeaways is the extent to which there is city collaboration across the country and the world. In addition to Boston, there are so many other cities pushing forward inspirational initiatives and the opportunity. Beyond that, the biggest takeaway has to be the climate agreement. It is slated to come into full effect in 2020 so as municipal leaders, we have a lot of work to do in pushing forward on progress in the interim.
OFS: What projects are you currently working on or most excited for in 2016?
AB: In 2016 we will have our first project identified for Renew Boston Trust, a self-funded energy efficiency performance contracting initiative. This will result in substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and will save the City money in pursuing energy efficient projects.
Another exciting initiative is a procurement effort to triple the amount of solar installed on municipal assets. This too will reduce costs and emissions.
Cities are uniquely equipped to be the innovation labs of the country and in taking on that role we need to be leaders for the rest of the world. Universities, will need to play a similar role.
OFS: What is one issue you think is often overlooked when people talk about tackling climate change?
AB: When we talk about climate change, most people immediately look to the bigger mitigation efforts and long-term efforts, like our 80% greenhouse gas reduction goal by 2050. What is sometimes lost in the discussion are the small things that people can do in their everyday life. Many simple habit changing actions like pursuing energy retrofits, turning down the thermostat by a degree or two during winter, or biking or walking to work not only reduce our GHG emissions, but can also save residents a significant sum of money!
OFS: What role do you think cities should play in tackling climate change? And what about universities, or how do they differ?
AB: Cities must continue to be the innovators and leaders on climate change. Cities are uniquely equipped to be the innovation labs of the country and in taking on that role we need to be leaders for the rest of the world. Universities, will need to play a similar role. There is no better way to teach the next generation than during college years, arguably some of the most formative years of education. Universities need to be a leader in tackling climate change so students can learn, live, and be inspired in a sustainable environment.
Universities need to be a leader in tackling climate change so students can learn, live, and be inspired in a sustainable environment.
OFS: What advice do you have for current students interested in this field of work?
AB: If you’re pursuing these interests, the most important thing to think about is the biggest problem you see that will have the greatest impact on your life and the lives of those you love. Take that issue and define it very concretely, either in greenhouse gas or financial terms, and figure out a way to solve that problem using your strengths and skills necessary to succeed.
Image Caption: Daniel Koh, Chief of Staff, City of Boston; Austin Blackmon, Chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space, City of Boston, and Eduardo Paes, Mayor of Rio de Janeiro and Chair of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.