Just how ambitious is the Senate’s new climate bill?

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston. FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 5/18/2022 2:38:28 PM
Modified: 5/18/2022 2:36:42 PM

The Senate passed a bill in April aiming to make Massachusetts a leader in the transition from carbon-emitting fuels to stop the worst effects of climate change. It would put the state in the forefront of efforts such as offshore wind and rail electrification and help it catch up on others such as clean energy investment.

While it’s hard to predict how these policies will play out over the next five to 10 years, the Senate’s bill looks to be setting the state on track to meet its emissions targets, said Christopher Knittel, a professor of applied economics in the Sloan School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It’s a great first step,” Knittel said. “It definitely checks all the boxes in terms of incentivizing a move away from products that generate greenhouse gas emissions in transportation, electricity, heating, and so on.”

Massachusetts already has one of the lowest per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the country, with only California, New York, and the District of Columbia emitting less per person, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The state’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 85% below 1990 levels and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 is in line with other states’ emissions targets, though 26 states have no emissions targets at all. This new legislation would be the first big action towards meeting Massachusetts’ target.

Ambitious goals and policies allow Massachusetts to set an example on climate action for other states, Knittel said.

“It is good for states like Massachusetts, California and New York to lead the country in this issue … it shows that these policies are not going to kill the economy,” Knittel said. “No individual state’s emissions are going to put a dent in climate change, so the reason a state does this is to provide leadership and provide guidance to other states.”

Massachusetts is often a leader in the public policy space, said Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and now is a critical moment for climate action.

“As a coastal state, we don’t have the luxury of sitting back and saying let’s keep relying on carbon-based fuels in perpetuity —  we’re not going to be able to make a life in this state if we don’t change course,” Cyr said. “Prior generations have failed to take action. We’re honest about what it’s going to take to arrest this crisis, but we don’t have any other choice.”

Offshore wind

This bill began as an offshore wind bill in the House, and the Senate’s version would clear the way for enough offshore wind energy production to account for one-third of the Biden administration’s offshore production goals by 2030, Cyr said.

Investment in offshore windpower would keep Massachusetts a leader in the field, as there are currently only two operational offshore wind farms in the United States: Block Island Wind, off Rhode Island, and Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind, east of Cape Henry.

Investments in clean energy

The bill allocates $100 million to the Clean Energy Investment Fund, $100 million to incentivize adoption of electric vehicles, and $50 million to build out electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

The state so far has invested $86.3 million into renewable energy, which ranks Massachusetts 32nd in state spending on clean energy, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The climate bill would bring the state’s total investment up to $186.3 million, ranking it 20th, ahead of Maine and Virginia, but still behind 19 states including New York and North Carolina.

The electric vehicle investment would come on top of $63.5 million allocated to Massachusetts for electric vehicle infrastructure through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Biden administration announced a $5 billion investment in electric vehicle chargers in February.

Goals and regulations

Under this law, all new vehicles sold in Massachusetts would need to produce zero emissions by 2035, a potentially more ambitious goal than the Biden administration’s executive order to make 50% of new vehicle sales zero-emission vehicles by 2030.

Massachusetts currently ranks fifth in the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s scorecard for state transportation electrification efforts, based on goals, incentives, system efficiency, and equity among other metrics.

The legislation also allows up to 10 municipalities to restrict fossil fuel use in construction with local approval. Some cities in the U.S., such as New York City and Berkeley, California, have already been at the vanguard of restricting fossil fuel use in new construction.

The MBTA would be required under this law to convert its bus fleet to electric by 2030, and stop purchasing diesel-powered trains for commuter rail by 2030, with specific plans to electrify the system. This would set Massachusetts as a leader in this area, as only a handful of rail lines in the U.S. have been electrified.

Price on carbon?

The one thing Knittel said is missing from the Senate’s climate bill is an explicit, economy-wide price on greenhouse gas emissions. A state law passed in 2020 mandated the executive branch to implement a market-based mechanism to reduce emissions, such as a carbon tax, by 2030, but as of right now carbon is not taxed statewide.

“Economists are unanimous in saying that a price on carbon is the most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Knittel said. “It would be great if we could convince the powers that be to add that.”

While this law would put Massachusetts far ahead of many states on climate regulation and clean energy investment, taxpayers should not worry about spending too much on carbon mitigation, Knittel said, mainly because of co-benefits such as lowered local pollutants, more resilient infrastructure, and cheaper electricity and transportation.

“There’s always a tradeoff spending money on one thing, there’s lots of good activities that the state could spend money on, but I don’t think Massachusetts is at risk of overspending on climate,” Knittel said. “Massachusetts is going to reap a lot of direct benefits from this spending.”

Cyr said he expects the Legislature to take up a climate bill at least once every session for the foreseeable future. The current bill must still be reconciled with the less expansive House-passed version that focuses most heavily on offshore wind.

“There’s a whole host of issues that we weren’t able to get done in this bill. We’re going to get this done, it’s just a matter of getting the policy right, and I think it’s important that we get the policy right too, because we’re a model for other states,” Cyr said. “When you look at the climate crisis and what needs to be done, we have so much to do and so much to meet net zero goals by 2050.”

Alex LaSalvia writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program. 

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