No more climate legislation needed; it’s time for action

Mass. needs to focus on the fundamentals of net zero infrastructure

IN 2021, after extensive negotiation, the Massachusetts Legislature passed the Next Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy, which calls for reducing emissions by 75 percent by 2040 and 85 percent by 2050 relative to 1990 levels. Now, based on the latest IPCC report, those seemingly ambitious goals already seem insufficient. But do we really need another major state climate law?

In fact, there is plenty that the Commonwealth’s new state administration, as well as its cities and towns can do under existing law to meet and even exceed the IPCC’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions even faster.

The delicately negotiated 2021 bill was the Commonwealth’s first major climate legislation since the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act. Given this history, it is unlikely that there is political appetite now for negotiating new and more ambitious legislation, nor should this be the focus of state action.

Rather than new legislation, it is now the time for the Healey administration and municipalities from Boston to Easthampton to lay the groundwork for an unprecedented transformation across several fronts.

In our recent assessment of Boston’s climate action plans for the Boston Foundation, we found that Boston is at risk of not being able to achieve its net-zero 2050 goal. Given challenges in local and regional implementation over the past several years, our findings can be easily extrapolated to the state.

The Commonwealth needs to focus on the fundamentals of building net zero infrastructure. When done with an eye towards reparative justice, we can reduce emissions and undo past environmental, economic, and social harms inflicted on low-income and marginalized communities.

Specifically, we need to rapidly deploy wind, solar, and transmission across the region; move toward 100 percent electric vehicle ales for most vehicle classes by the early 2030s; build fossil-fuel-free housing nearby transit to sustainably address the housing crisis; deploy more than 1 million heat pumps to existing homes by the end of the decade; retrofit all homes to be all-electric by the early 2030s; and build local thermal and electric grids that meet community energy and resiliency needs.

The list goes on—we are all familiar with it. The problem is that we have not been taking the necessary actions to achieve these goals.

What prevents progress? Lack of funding and incentives is one problem. The federal Inflation Reduction Act  has partially obviated this shortfall, but we must figure out funding streams to bridge the gap. We also lack the necessary workforce. We need more electricians, HVAC specialists, etc., to build and install the new infrastructure and technology.  And we need better data and more data sharing to figure out what is working, as well as pilot projects at the neighborhood level. Meeting our renewable goals will require more cooperation with other New England states.

These are not insurmountable problems. But solutions are complicated. Something as seemingly simple as installing more heat pumps requires addressing a convoluted process for getting subsidies, workforce shortages, supply chain shortages, and increasing rebates so lower-income households can transition.

And there is good news. Removal of federal barriers put in place by the Trump administration is accelerating the state’s impressive commitment to the expansion of offshore wind, which offers the co-benefits of creating jobs and revitalizing the economies of cities such as New Bedford and Salem. Despite Trump administration efforts to stall permits, commercial-scale Vineyard Wind 1 has been permitted by the Biden administration and will start to bring bring power to the Commonwealth by the end of the year.

Gov. Maura Healey’s move to establish a climate chief and Office of Climate Innovation and Resilience signals that her administration is committed to addressing the problems that have been slowing progress. Further, she just created a two-person energy team to work with other New England states on procuring federal Inflation Reduction Act funding and to jointly procure renewable energy. We should let these programs and strategies play out rather than diverting energy to renegotiating legislation.

Joan Fitzgerald is a professor of urban planning and public policy at Northeastern University. Michael J. Walsh is a founding partner at Groundwork Data. Ted Landsmark is a distinguished professor of public policy and urban affairs and director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.