Climate policy update needed on Beacon Hill

Conference committee needs to think big

THE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE has a chance to get the Commonwealth on to a better track with climate change. Massachusetts is regularly ranked first in the nation in energy efficiency programs and we have okay renewable energy programs, but when it comes to climate change policy we have been resting on our laurels.

Our current programs were designed a decade or more ago. They set a timeline for reducing greenhouse emissions by 80 percent by 2050. That was pretty forward-looking in 2008, when keeping temperature rise to 2℃ was the goal.  That goal is woefully inadequate to deal with the climate crisis we now see all around us — 130℉ temperatures in Death Valley, California and much of the west engulfed in smoke from forest fires; polar ice caps shrinking; multiple hurricanes in the Gulf; drought here in Massachusetts and throughout the Northeast.

The problems that we imagined as a dystopian future when Massachusetts set its energy policy in 2008 are now our daily headlines. And scientists are telling us now that we have less than 7 years and 100 days of pollution left (at current rates) before we blow through our carbon budget for 1.5℃.

The Democratic primary for US Senate showed pretty clearly that the people of Massachusetts are eager for faster, stronger climate action now — Ed Markey’s decisive win shows we want a Green New Deal. Legislation pending at the State House takes us some important steps in that direction, but the key decisions remain to be made.

When the formal legislative session ended in July, both branches had passed different bills to put Massachusetts on a path to “net zero” emissions by 2050 (an improved, but still too late, goal).  The House “2050 Roadmap” bill, and the Senate “ Next Generation Climate Bill” now sit in a conference committee of the Transportation, Utilities and Energy Committee, which is charged with fashioning one bill that would  go to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk to sign.

We have a chance to achieve a much-needed update of our climate policy if the right pieces are taken from each bill. Take the wrong language, and we have an empty shell of a law that further kicks the can down the road once again.

But each bill has key language that the other lacks.  Both bills call for creating a plan to get to net zero emissions no later than 2050 with intermediate goals between now and then.  Both bills call for regulations to be written to implement the changes we need.

The House bill defines environmental justice communities, which are already suffering disproportionate pollution and the impacts of climate change, and calls on the Commonwealth to protect and support those communities. Senate language on this topic is less far-reaching.

The House helpfully, but too modestly, increases the amount of renewable energy utilities are required to purchase by 2030. But the House shamefully defines polluting biomass generators that burn wood as “non-emitting,” allowing those dirty facilities to be built in environmental justice and other communities.

The right language in the Senate bill makes it the job of the Department of Public Utilities to ensure energy suppliers do their part to reduce climate pollution.  And it requires that regulators count the costs of climate change when they figure out which programs and facilities are “cost effective.”

Crucially, we have to move fast, and start now. The wrong language in the House bill gives the administration four years to get started on reducing emissions with new regulations — even as it calls for a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. The right language in the Senate sets an aggressive, clear, and achievable set of targets for cleaning up our air and reducing emissions. It gets things rolling as soon as regulations are ready, with some going into effect in 18 months.

The House also has a useful “greenworks” bonding program to raise the funds needed to kickstart many of these initiatives.

If the conference committee fails to act, the legislation will probably die, adding at least another year until we get moving, when we are already behind the ball.

Meet the Author

Craig S Altemose

Senior advisor, 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future
Picking through nearly 100  pages of the two bills is not an easy task for the conference committee.  But time is short and there are some clear choices to be made.  Time to think big, go deep, go fast, and leave nobody behind.

Craig S. Altemose is the executive director of Better Future Project, the home of 350 Massachusetts, Divest Ed, and Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW).