Senate to vote on sweeping climate change bill
‘The planet’s survival is at stake,’ says Spilka
THE SENATE IS PREPARING to vote on sweeping legislation to address climate change, putting in place a series of mandates and regulatory measures as well as phased-in carbon pricing on automobile and building fuels to make sure the state meets the goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Gov. Charlie Baker announced the 2050 goal in his State of the State address on Tuesday. Senate leaders, who say they broached their plan to push for a net-zero goal with the governor’s staff in November, say their package of bills lays the groundwork for meeting that goal and avoiding the type of emission setbacks that they say are occurring right now.
“We have been inspired by the youth of our state and of our nation and around the globe. They have spoken to us in no uncertain times that we must act with a sense of urgency and immediacy,” Senate President Karen Spilka said at a press briefing Thursday in her office. “This is a real urgent issue and we must act now. We must act and lead on climate change because the federal government is not.”
Spilka spoke passionately about the high stakes involved and how success depends on neighbors, cities, states, and countries coming together to address the problem. “We’re all in this together,” she said. “This is a race against time. Climate change is changing not only Massachusetts and the United States, it is changing the face of the planet. The planet’s survival is at stake.”
Sen. Michael Barret of Lexington, who is taking the lead on the climate change legislation, said he and his staff shared with the Baker administration in November their legislative plans, including the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
“We shared that with them because the idea here is not to cop a headline or spring a surprise. We really want consensus,” Barrett said, adding that he was thrilled the governor signed on earlier this week and House Speaker Robert DeLeo also said he was on board. “That tells me it’s possible to align objectives here,” he said. “We’re coming together.”
The Senate’s overall 2050 goal comes with interim targets that must be met every five years and also sets goals for transportation, buildings, solid waste, natural gas distribution, and other major sectors.
Barrett said it appears the state will not meet its greenhouse gas emissions target for 2020, in part because of the closing of Pilgrim Station in 2019 and rising transportation emissions. He called it “bogus” that the state won’t know if it failed to meet the target until 2023, so he is mandating that the administration report on emission results 18 months after any target date.
The Senate legislation would also establish a climate policy commission to oversee the government’s handling of the crisis, give the Department of Public Utilities a mission statement that includes reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as a top priority, and shifts responsibility for developing a net zero energy code for municipalities from the Board of Building Regulations and Standards to the Department of Energy Resources. (For full details, click here.) The nine members of the climate policy commission would be appointed by the governor and attorney general, serve voluntarily, and oversee a budget no greater than $5 million a year paid for from funds raised via carbon pricing assessments.
“We’re tightening up at every turn here,” Barrett said. “We’re getting very serious about holding ourselves accountable and then figuring out how well we’ve done, so that if we fall short in meeting one limit we’re going to double down to meet it the next time around. There’s not going to be any more slacking off and no more talk of three-year delays before you complain on how well Massachusetts is doing.”
The bill leaves it up to the governor to decide the best way to place a price on the carbon contained in fuels. Barrett said he personally favors a revenue-neutral fee because it is the most progressive, but he said the governor can also choose a regional cap and trade system similar to the transportation climate initiative he is currently pushing.
The Senate legislation also creates a deadline for setting a price on the carbon contained in fuels used in commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings by January 1, 2025, and on the fuel used in residential buildings by January 1, 2030. Barrett said suppliers of the fuels would bear the initial cost of the carbon fees, but he acknowledged they would most likely pass those costs on to building owners who fail to convert to clean fuels.
Barrett said the legislation would require the MBTA to buy electric-only buses starting in 2030 and convert all of them to zero-emissions by 2040. It would also permanently authorize state financial incentives for purchasers of zero emission vehicles and take a host of other measures to promote their use. Finally, it would require natural gas utilities to explore the widespread generation and transport of renewable thermal energy, which relies on heat from the ground.The senator said there is no penalty contained in the legislation if the state fails to meet its emission reduction targets, which helps explain why he believes meeting the climate change goals will be so challenging.
“The response has to be self-awareness and a concession that we’re falling off the pace and we’ve got to ask every climate activist in Massachusetts to help us put ourselves back on the pace.” said Barrett. “Because here’s the thing: You cannot legally enforce a limit if attaining the limit depends on millions of homeowners and millions of automobile purchasers making a particular set of decisions. There’s no body you can hold accountable. You can’t fine yourself as a collective population of 6.5 million. We’re going to find out, as climate change becomes more and more dire, that we truly are in this together and there’s no one source of failure. If we make these goals and we save Massachusetts it will be a collective success. If we fail, it will be a collective failure. We’re going to use the climate policy commission to highlight successes, highlight failures, keep this issue in the news, keep it before people until we succeed because, as the Senate president said, we can’t afford to fail.”