Reducing power plant emissions is not enough

We need carbon pricing to reach state’s environmental goals

AS A SHELLSHOCKED NATION assesses the damage of Hurricane Harvey, scientists are pointing to warming oceans and rising sea levels as key culprits behind one of the most expensive natural disasters in history. To most, Harvey represents a wakeup call around the urgent need to name and address climate change. Yet our nation’s leaders are committed to rolling back climate regulations, and the EPA went as far as chiding scientists for trying to “politicize” the storm. With a federal government committed to the denial of climate science, it is on the shoulders of lower levels of government to address climate change.

Many find hope for climate progress in the recently released proposal by nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states to strengthen the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which has contributed to a 40 percent reduction in the region’s electricity-sector emissions since it began in 2009. The new proposal calls for cutting emissions an additional 30 percent between 2020 and 2030.

While this is an important step forward, most carbon emissions in Massachusetts come from the transportation and heating sectors, which are outside of RGGI’s scope. In order to be on track to reach the emissions reduction mandate established in the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) – an 80 percent cut by 2050 – we must reduce emissions across the entire economy approximately 20 percent between 2020 and 2030. The electricity sector reductions from RGGI will get us less than one-third of the way there, leaving other economic sectors to achieve the other two-thirds.

While Massachusetts may reach its short-term requirement to cut emissions 25 percent by 2020, we lack policies that will get us anywhere close to the 80 percent cut, which is what scientists say is necessary to stabilize our climate. The most important new policy that the state could adopt is to put a price on carbon pollution from all sources — recognized worldwide as the most cost-effective means to make the necessary deep cuts in emissions.

The idea is simple: by making it more expensive to pollute, we can incentivize a shift away from dirty fossil fuels and toward a clean energy economy. There are currently two carbon pricing bills in the state Legislature that, if passed, would place a fee on fossil fuels as they enter the state. The bills cover all sectors except electricity generation, which is already handled by RGGI. Projections indicate that such a fee would cut carbon pollution more than any policy that Massachusetts has now or is considering.

S.1821 calls for 100 percent of the revenue from the fee to be rebated back to households and businesses. H.1726 would rebate 80 percent of the money and reinvest 20 percent  into a Green Infrastructure Fund. By giving an equal rebate to every resident of the state, the legislation would protect most low- and moderate-income households, making it an equitable policy solution to climate change. Because these households generally use less energy than higher-income families, their rebates would usually be greater than any increased costs they pay, making it an equitable policy to address climate change.

Since there would be no connection between how much a person pays in fees and the size of the rebate, there would be a strong incentive to use less fossil fuel in order to keep more of that money.

By giving people the freedom to choose how to reduce their fossil fuel usage, the policy would unleash a wave of creativity and innovation, from the individual to the industry level. Along with the transition to clean energy comes thousands of new jobs, from the highly technical to construction to sales. A study found that a carbon pricing in Massachusetts could help generate more than 12,000 jobs in just five years. It would also enable us to circulate money back into the Massachusetts economy, rather than sending nearly $20 billion out of state annually to pay for fossil fuels, as we currently do.

These figures stand in addition to the nearly $3 billion generated through the public health co-benefits a carbon price would create. A Harvard School of Public Health study analyzed how carbon pricing would reduce pollution, preventing heart attacks, reducing hospitalizations, and ultimately saving hundreds of lives.

Meet the Author

Jamie Garuti

Communications manager, Climate Action Business Association
Meet the Author

Marc Breslow

Research and policy director, Climate XChange
Hurricane Harvey showed the country that climate change is happening now; it’s time for Massachusetts to show that we are serious about tackling it. We cannot rely on the federal government to address this issue, making state-level leadership essential. Through the Global Warming Solutions Act and Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to join the US Climate Alliance, our government has committed to doing so. If we are to prevent devastating superstorms from becoming the norm, we must drastically reduce our carbon emissions quickly. Carbon pricing is the next critical tool needed to meet our mandates, and presents an irresistible opportunity to boost the health of our communities and push the Commonwealth to the forefront of the innovation economy.

Jamie Garuti is the communications manager at the Climate Action Business Association and Marc Breslow is the research and policy director at Climate XChange. He was the lead author of the state’s clean energy and climate plan and co-author of a 2014 study by the Department of Energy Resources that analyzed the impacts of a carbon-fee-and-rebate system.