Two significant events this week are transforming the debate in Massachusetts about how we should move forward in fighting climate change, and made it clear that we have to do more.
First, the Boston Globe drew attention to the recent report from ISO, the region’s power grid operator, that carbon emissions from New England’s power plants actually increased in 2015 over the previous year by 5 percent, the first year-to-year increase since 2010.
Emissions had declined by about 25 percent in the last 15 years, largely due to the closing of the state’s coal plants and to energy efficiency improvements. But the region has lagged behind California and other places in shifting toward renewable energy such as wind and solar, and instead has become overly dependent on natural gas with its volatile supply and price. When the carbon-neutral Vermont Yankee nuclear plant closed in 2014, the energy was replaced with a 13 percent increase in natural gas-generated electricity and that dependence has increased even further.
Exactly the wrong direction at a time when Massachusetts already was unlikely to meet its 2020 deadline to reduce its global warming emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels, a mandate established in the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). Too many opportunities to accelerate a shift away from fossil fuels have been bypassed, and it has been too easy for the Governor and the legislature to punt on the issue and hope that things will somehow work out.
Just yesterday, the Supreme Judicial Court unanimously delivered its verdict on that timidity. The court’s clear and unambiguous ruling was that the state must comply with the GWSA mandates by implementing regulations that “address multiple sources or categories of sources of greenhouse gas emissions, impose a limit on emissions that may be released … and set limits that decline on an annual basis.”
The ruling was a victory for all those who want the state to build a stronger, more resilient economy on a foundation of locally-generated, reliable renewable energy that makes us safer and healthier. But the ruling also leaves the state in a quandary.
Current energy proposals in the legislature – many included in a still-developing energy omnibus bill that incorporates proposals from Governor Baker and legislators – are alone unlikely to bring the state into compliance with the 2020 requirements, and certainly not with the much tougher mandate to reduce emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. In a state that has prided itself on national climate change leadership for many years, we are slipping, still not being bold or aggressive enough to address one of the worst challenges we have ever faced.
Fortunately, there is another policy we can implement – incorporated in two bills now in the legislature – which has been successful all over the world in both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and strengthening the economy, and one that will be make almost every other environmental and energy policy we have, or might adopt, more effective.
Carbon pricing – charging fossil fuel importers a fee based on how much carbon dioxide pollution a fuel releases when burned – accomplishes several goals at once. It corrects what economists across the ideological spectrum have called a “massive market failure.” It sends a clear price signal that the social costs of fossil fuels – such as increased respiratory disease and extreme weather events – will no longer be hidden in our tax bills and insurance premiums but instead will be clearly reflected in the price of energy and products so we can make better, more reliable decisions about what to buy and where to invest.
Effective carbon pricing systems – such as the one in British Columbia which served as a model for the policy now being proposed in Massachusetts – have a strong track record of significantly reducing emissions – 16 percent in British Columbia since its adoption in 2008 – while replacing imported fossil fuel and stimulating local renewable energy with its locally-grown businesses and jobs. Massachusetts sends more than $20 billion every year out of state for the fossil fuels that are damaging our environment and health, and threatening our property and our lives. Keeping more of that money in the state would make us stronger.
Two current proposals at the State House would create a common sense carbon pricing system in Massachusetts. One proposal, S. 1747, would charge fossil fuel importers a carbon fee. The revenues from those fees would go into a special dedicated fund for rebates, and be passed on directly to households and employers in order to minimize any increased costs in living and doing business. Each resident would receive an equal rebate from the fund.
Since low- and moderate-income households tend to use less energy than wealthier ones, on average they would come out ahead, but everyone would have an incentive to reduce their use of fossil fuel in order to pay less in fees. Businesses, nonprofit organizations, and municipalities would receive a dividend from the fund based on their share of the state’s employment.Another developing proposal – S. 1786 – follows a similar model but would invest a small portion of the funds in clean energy and public transportation.
Research by the state’s Department of Energy Resources found that this kind of carbon-fee-and-rebate policy would have the single greatest impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions – provide the biggest bang for the buck – among the policies currently in place or anticipated. That is the kind of policy Massachusetts leaders must now embrace. It is time for bold leadership.
Rebecca Morris is Director of Communications of the Massachusetts Campaign for a Clean Energy Future, a coalition of organizations supporting the implementation of carbon pricing in the Commonwealth.