The state of Massachusetts has been an important leader in the fight to protect our climate from global warming. But there’s one area where Massachusetts continues to struggle: controlling pollution from transportation. New limits on transportation emissions now under consideration by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) could determine whether the Commonwealth can stay track to achieve our climate mandates, or whether transportation emissions will undermine the progress the state has been able to make building a clean energy future.
Transportation and the Global Warming Solution Act
The Bay State has passed one of the strongest climate laws in the country, the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), which requires the state to reduce emissions throughout our economy by at least 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. Massachusetts also leads the nation in energy efficiency, and last year, passed an energy bill that will see the largest ever procurement of offshore wind in the United States.
Massachusetts has been able to make significant progress on these issues because the people of the Commonwealth care a lot about climate, because our state is uniquely threatened by the impacts of sea level rise and other climate change impacts, and because our state boasts a proud bipartisan tradition of leadership on climate and energy.
But transportation has been a challenge for Massachusetts. Pollution from our cars and trucks is the largest source of emissions in the state, and it’s the one area of our economy where emissions have actually grown since 1990, as increased total driving in the state has outpaced gains in fuel efficiency:
Achieving significant reductions in transportation emissions basically boils down to using a lot less oil. The good news is that we know how to do this! More efficient cars, cleaner fuels, electric vehicles, and a transportation system that gets us where we need to go without spending so much time behind the wheel, can all help cut pollution from transportation.
Kain v. Department of Environmental Protection
This week, Massachusetts will take an important step towards tackling the pollution from transportation, as the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) considers new limits on emissions in the sector.
These proposed regulations are in response to last year’s landmark decision in Kain v. Department of Environmental Protection, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered the state needs to set mandatory and enforceable limits on the total mass of pollution emitted within the state from different sources, including transportation. These proposed regulations represent DEP’s response to the Kain decision. So how did the DEP do? Here’s what you need to know:
#1: DEP is proposing to limit most, but not all, emissions in the transportation sector.
The proposed DEP regulation covers the “surface transportation system” within Massachusetts, which means emissions that come from passenger vehicles, light and heavy duty trucks, and transit systems. The new regulations do not cover aviation or marine transportation. All told, that means that approximately 85 percent of Massachusetts transportation emissions are covered by this regulation.
Leaving aviation and marine travel out of the current regulation may make sense, given that these areas present different administrative challenges. In the long run, however, Massachusetts will need to make progress in these areas as well, and the state should consider additional regulations that will establish limits on boats and airplanes.
#2: The proposed limits are ambitious.
Overall the state is proposing to cut emissions in the transportation sector by approximately 1.87 percent per year for each of the three years covered by this regulation (2018, 2019 and 2020). That’s pretty challenging! Massachusetts has not been able to achieve a 1.87 percent reduction in transportation emissions for three consecutive years since 1990-1993, 25 years ago.
But, while ambitious, a 1.87 percent linear decline isn’t quite enough to achieve our long-term climate goals. Overall, the DEP proposal would put the state on track to achieve a 35% reduction by 2030 and a 57% reduction by 2050. So while these regulations represent an ambitious effort to begin to get transportation emissions under control, we’ll need to accelerate progress over the coming years to achieve our climate mandates.
#3: Achieving these limits will require additional policies.
The two biggest challenges with this regulation are: it isn’t clear how we are going to achieve these limits, and it’s not clear what happens if we fail to achieve them.
Right now, Massachusetts is relying heavily on federal and regional policies to reduce emissions in transportation. In fact, 93 percent of the projected emission reductions in the state’s most recent Clean Energy and Climate Protection plan come from National Greenhouse Gas and Fuel Economy Standards that, if fully implemented, will approximately double the fuel efficiency of new vehicles by 2025. These standards are now very much under threat from a combination of automaker intransigence and the current administration in Washington.
The new federal administration means that Massachusetts and other states are probably on our own when it comes to achieving our climate limits. Massachusetts needs to think big about new policies that will help our residents and businesses drive less or purchase cleaner vehicles. Aside from reducing emissions in state fleets, the DEP is not yet proposing new policies to achieve the limits that they lay out in this regulation. But they are going to have to if they want to be successful.
#4: It’s not clear how these regulations will be enforced.
What happens if we go over our limit? The regulations are not clear on this very important point.
The most straightforward way to make the limits on transportation emissions enforceable is through a requirement that polluters purchase allowances from a limited pool (or cap). This market-based approach would build on the successful model of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has been really effective in reducing emissions while promoting economic growth in the electricity sector. RGGI is also an important source of funding for Massachusetts’ clean energy and efficiency programs. A market-based approach to ensuring emission reductions is explicitly authorized by Section 7 of the GWSA.
Without some kind of mechanism to ensure that the state actually achieves the reductions, this regulation will not be the kind of mandatory and enforceable limits required by the Supreme Judicial Court.
#5: Achieving long-term reductions in the transportation sector will require regulations that extend past 2020.
One major challenge facing DEP throughout this whole process is that the GWSA regulations that they are in charge of implementing sunset by statute in 2021. Achieving short-term reductions is challenging in the transportation sector, as vehicles, community development patterns, and transportation infrastructure investments all change slowly.
A more sensible approach would be for the state to establish limits through 2030. Several proposals in the Massachusetts legislature would eliminate the 2020 sunset and allow DEP to consider limits on a longer time horizon.
Working together, both parties and all three branches of government in Massachusetts have made significant progress reducing emissions from electricity generation and increasing the efficiency of our homes. Massachusetts’ policies to promote solar energy, for example, have allowed the technology to explode into the mainstream, providing thousands of Massachusetts residents with affordable zero-emission energy. With the growth of new technologies such as electric vehicles, new transportation systems such as car sharing, and ever-increasing use of public transportation and cycling in the Bay State, we have more options then ever before to promote clean transportation. It is time for policy leaders in Massachusetts to bring the same urgency and focus that has lead to so much success in the electric sector to the task of reducing pollution from transportation.