TCI is a Strategy to Enforce Limits on Transportation Pollution

November 12, 2019 | 10:47 am
Sarah Nichols/Flickr
Daniel Gatti
Former contributor

The Baker administration may be on the verge of leading the Northeast towards a major advance in climate policy.

The Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), if successful, would establish the region’s first mandatory and enforceable limits on pollution from transportation, now the largest source of Massachusetts and the Northeast.

As TCI moves from concept to reality, more people are talking about the implications of the program. Some have raised legitimate questions, others have had honest misinterpretations, and dark money advocacy groups have started their inevitable and dishonest attacks.

It is important to set the record straight about what TCI is and how the program fits into the broader picture of climate policy in Massachusetts.

Under the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), passed unanimously by the legislature in 2008, Massachusetts must reduce emissions by at least 25% of 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. The GWSA does not proscribe any specific set of policies or actions needed to achieve these limits. Instead, the GWSA provides executive agencies with a range of policy tools they can use, and requires the executive branch to come up with a comprehensive plan.

The Massachusetts Judiciary has made it clear that the GWSA must achieve enforceable limits on total emissions. In 2016, the Supreme Judicial Court ordered the Baker administration to set mandatory and enforceable “declining annual aggregate emission limits” on sources of global warming pollution.

The largest source of pollution in Massachusetts is transportation, responsible for over 40% of the state’s global warming emissions. While Massachusetts has made significant progress reducing emissions from electricity, transportation emissions are actually higher today than they were in 1990. Transportation is also the leading source of particulate matter and other local pollutants that cause thousands of asthma attacks, over 190 preventable deaths, and $1.8 billion in health care costs each year, according to the American Lung Association.

The burdens of transportation pollution are not spread evenly across our state, but are concentrated near major highways, freight corridors, and ports. Disproportionately, transportation pollution impacts communities of color. A Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) study released this year showed that communities of color in areas such as Chinatown, Chelsea, Springfield, and Lawrence experience significantly greater harms from transportation pollution than majority white communities.

Massachusetts needs to limit transportation pollution. But there are 5.8 million vehicles operating on the road in Massachusetts, in addition to boats and airplanes. The state has little direct control over where these vehicles go. How do you enforce a limit on the total emissions coming from such a diverse range of sources?

Cap and trade, or ‘cap and invest’ is one way to answer this challenge. It works by setting an overall annual limit on emissions from a source, such as gasoline and diesel fuel, which decline every year. Polluters, in this case large oil distributors, are required to purchase allowances based on the emission content of their fuel. By limiting the number of allowances available through auction on a declining basis, cap and invest programs mandate overall emission reductions.

Massachusetts already participates in one such cap and invest program. In 2009, Massachusetts joined 8 other states in launching the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the first market-based limits on emissions from power plants. Thanks to RGGI, in addition to other complementary policies and the transition away from coal, the Northeast is on track to cut electricity emissions by 65% by 2030. Funding from the purchase of allowances in RGGI is used to support some of Massachusetts’ most innovative and important climate policies, including the MassSave program and the Green Communities Act.

Opponents of RGGI have always called it a tax. But the evidence demonstrates that by investing the funding it generates in energy efficiency, RGGI has actually reduced costs for consumers. An independent analysis shows that overall, RGGI has created 44,000 jobs in the region while saving consumers over $773 million in reduced energy costs.

The Massachusetts legislature was well aware of the importance of market-based programs like RGGI when they passed the GWSA in 2008. That’s why the plain text of the GWSA authorizes market-based programs like cap and invest, whether through a regional agreement like RGGI or a statewide program. Senator Marc Pacheco, who wrote the bill, has been telling people this for years.

It is true that the sale of auction allowances for transportation emissions will generate money for the state. But how this funding is used is essential to the success of TCI. To be effective, funds from TCI should be invested in clean transportation, particularly in communities that are most exposed to transportation pollution and those that lack access to alternatives. They should also be used on programs that reduce emissions and costs for consumers as well as on complementary policies such as vehicle emission standards.

California expanded their cap to cover transportation fuels in 2015. Today, that program funds over $2 billion per year in clean transportation investments. This program is working right now to expand light rail service in San Diego, improve bus service in Fresno, electrify trucks coming in and out of the Port of Oakland, increase affordable housing near transit, and make it easier for working-class people to own electric vehicles.

While TCI will create an enforceable limit on total transportation emissions, a cap is not sensitive enough to be able to guarantee emission reductions in any particular community. That is why it is essential for TCI to target investments toward the people and communities that are already most heavily impacted by transportation pollution. In California, 35% of all funds from their program must be used on investments directly benefiting low-income people and environmental justice communities. Massachusetts should strive to do even better than that.

The legislature could play an important role in ensuring that TCI funds are invested effectively and equitably. Legislation proposed by Rep. Laurie Ehrlich and Sen. Eric Lesser would create a robust and transparent process to determine how funds from TCI are used. Their bill would invite communities and stakeholders from across the state into the process of building a clean transportation system for the Commonwealth. The Ehrlich-Lesser bill would give environmental justice communities direct input in how investments are made.

The Baker administration is right to say that the establishment of a market-based limit on transportation emissions is within their responsibilities in implementing the GWSA. If the legislature wants to have more of a say in how this program operates, they need to insert themselves into the conversation.