It’s 2020. Massachusetts Needs to Move Faster on Climate and Clean Energy. Here’s How

January 6, 2020 | 11:41 am
J. Rogers/UCS
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

The Massachusetts legislature is back in session, and it’s not a moment too soon: We need our legislators to do their part to drive the clean energy progress that Massachusetts so dearly needs.

Progress on clean energy depends on the legislature, and the progress can drive our economy, create good jobs, improve public health by cutting harmful pollution, and help us significantly cut the carbon pollution responsible for climate change. And the legislative session is already almost two-thirds over.

Here are three ingredients for our legislators to address to keep clean energy moving in and for Massachusetts: strong climate targets, a high bar for the power sector, and a way forward for everyone.

Strengthening the climate path

One key ingredient for clean energy progress is clear direction on where we need to be, and when, in cutting our carbon pollution.

Massachusetts’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) was a triumph of science and policy when the legislature passed it in 2008, setting an economy-wide target to cut our heat-trapping emissions 80% by 2050. Now, more than 10 years on, with 10 more years of climate science and 10 more years of inadequate climate action at every level, the GWSA definitely needs strengthening.

What should that look like? One piece would be updating our long-term targets to net zero—meaning that by mid-century or sooner, we would on balance no longer be emitting carbon, across our economy. That’s the minimum level of ambition that the science is pointing us to for managing global temperature rise.

Another piece would be setting strong interim targets, for 2030 and 2040. Those nearer-term requirements will guide our trajectory. And they’ll steer us away from decisions that might hold some appeal in the short term, but that would make it much harder and more costly to get where we need to on climate solutions. Costly new investments in natural gas infrastructure come to mind, for example.

Going 100% clean

A second ingredient we need from the legislature is a strong push for accelerating progress in the power sector, a key sector of our economy and still a major source of global warming pollution. Fortunately, the way forward is clear.

The pathway is the one laid out by the many states that have already committed to 100%. The states have defined the target in different ways—renewable energy, or clean, or zero-carbon—but the point of all of them is to get carbon emissions out of our electricity generation. They have certain attributes in common:

  • Each has the state hitting its target in the near term, not many decades away.
  • Each has renewables clearly specified to play a major role in meeting the 100% target (including 100% of the target, in several cases).
  • Each signals clearly that dirty fossil fuels have no long-term future in their power mix.

Those 100% states are also positioning the power sector as the cornerstone of decarbonization across the economy—cutting emissions further by electrifying transportation and heating, for example.

Advancing equity

A third ingredient for the way forward is action from the legislature on improving energy equity and access across our state and our society. Too much of the burden of our electricity habits—pollution and siting, for example—has been borne by marginalized communities, people of color, and low-income households.

We have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to make fixing that a central part of our clean energy transition. We can do that by making sure that pollution reductions prioritize disadvantaged communities, and by making sure that all people have access to the direct benefits of clean energy.

The latter task includes creating opportunities for expanding access to solar for low- and moderate-income households, including renters—carve-outs or more targeted programs, for example, or an end to the state’s policy change that made community shared solar considerably less attractive.

How to get it done

The good news is that there are already legislative vehicle options—pending bills—for addressing each of these needs:

  • Climate targets – The 2050 Roadmap bill (H.3983, “An act to create a 2050 roadmap to a clean and thriving commonwealth”) and a similar Senate version (S.524, “An act relative to 2030, 2040, and 2050 emissions limits”) would update the GWSA’s mid-century target to “at least net zero” by 2050, and would set strong 2030 and 2040 interim goals. There are also provisions for requiring the administration to identify and assess different pathways for meeting those targets. (See my testimony here.)
  • 100% clean energy – Bills in both the House (H.2836) and Senate (S.1958) can serve as the focal points for getting this piece done in a timely fashion. The details can be debated, but Massachusetts should be clear about where our power sector is headed, and that we’re not stopping till we get to 100% clean. (See my testimony here.)
  • Equity – Several bills deserve attention in terms of their potential to improve equity and access. Those include the climate Roadmap and 100% bills. The Roadmap would require strong attention to the effects of the policies on marginalized populations and low- and moderate-income households. The 100% bills have several provisions focusing specifically on “environmental justice communities and other populations that have been disproportionately affected by pollution and energy costs.” Other bills would broaden access to solar power (See the testimony of my colleague Paula García here). And broader environmental justice (EJ) bills (H.826/S.453 and H.761/S.464) would help ensure greater attention to EJ issues across government decision making.

One other noteworthy potential vehicle for legislative progress is the GreenWorks bill (H.3997) from House Speaker Robert DeLeo. GreenWorks, which has already passed the House and is awaiting Senate attention, focuses on other aspects of climate change, including helping Massachusetts communities prepare for and adapt to unavoidable impacts of the climate crisis already underway. Its attention to adaptation would be well complemented by the proposals above, on carbon emission reductions, clean energy, and equity.

Massachusetts: ready for climate action

Leadership at the state level

The context for Massachusetts’s decision making includes happenings (or non-happenings) far beyond the state borders. The failure of the recent international climate talks and the complete abdication of national leadership make it even more clear that the states really (really) need to take the lead.

And, let’s face it, some states have more experience leading on these issues than others. That includes Massachusetts, which has a long history of getting out in front on climate and clean energy, based on leadership from its legislature. The first-in-the-nation statewide renewable electricity standard, for example. The Global Warming Solutions Act, the strongest of any state at the time. The first large offshore wind requirement.

And… we need more, based on the science and our economy and the possibilities before us. Massachusetts did raise its renewable electricity standard, but its requirement now pales in comparison to what the many 100% states have recently committed to (and natural gas is an uncomfortably big piece of our electricity supply). On solar, Massachusetts got out in front early on, establishing the state as a leader despite our winters, but it’s been falling in the rankings.

The Massachusetts legislature makes a lot of tough decisions to take the commonwealth on track to a better tomorrow. Deciding to take action in these areas, though, is not tough.

This push isn’t about keeping up with the Joneses. This is about keeping up with the evolving science of climate impacts, and continuing to find new ways to rise to the occasion. This is about keeping up with the expanding range of cost-effective tools in our clean energy toolbox. This is about seeing what other states are doing, and embracing smart policies they’ve pioneered—just as other states have done in following Massachusetts in the past.

These policies on equity, clean energy, and carbon reduction are doable, they’re appropriate, and they’re necessary. And the power to make them happen is in the legislature’s hands.

The final word could maybe go to the “Emergency Preamble” that the House added to the speaker’s Greenworks bill, which says that (emphasis added):

The deferred operation of this act would tend to defeat its purpose,… therefore it is hereby declared to be an emergency law, necessary for the immediate preservation of the public convenience.

When it comes to strong Massachusetts legislative action on climate and clean energy, I couldn’t agree more.

Posted in: Energy

Tags: Massachusetts

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.