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IDEAS

Massachusetts is a leader on climate change — but it can do better

The state is like a person trying to lose weight who exercises more — but fails to change his diet.

A designated parking space for electric vehicles at a Chicago area grocery store. Massachusetts will need to build a dense network of charging stations for residents to adopt electric vehicles.
A designated parking space for electric vehicles at a Chicago area grocery store. Massachusetts will need to build a dense network of charging stations for residents to adopt electric vehicles.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Massachusetts has been a national leader on tackling the most important challenge we face — reducing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible to prevent runaway climate change. Our Commonwealth has brought valuable assets to this fight: uniquely bipartisanship leadership from Governors Patrick and Baker; a forward-thinking Legislature that has enacted several comprehensive climate and clean energy bills; a business and labor community that values clean energy jobs and innovation; and tenacious activists who demand that we punch above our weight.

These strengths have yielded some impressive successes. Massachusetts adopted the most stringent short-term carbon pollution reduction goal of any state — an overall 25 percent drop from 1990 levels by 2020 — and appears on the verge of meeting it, according to the latest data. It is the most energy efficient state in the nation, according to an independent evaluator. In 2017 my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, ranked Massachusetts third among all 50 states on clean energy momentum. And in his recent State of the Commonwealth address, Governor Baker pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050 — a commitment that only two other states (California and Hawaii) have made.

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Yet, Massachusetts’ approach to climate change resembles an overweight person who has focused on one strategy for losing weight (e.g., getting exercise) but failed in another (cutting calories). This analogy captures Massachusetts’ uneven progress cutting the two biggest sources of carbon pollution — electricity (we’ve done well in many respects) and transportation (we’ve done poorly).

Electric Sector Success, and Opportunity

Heat-trapping emissions from power plants are about 20 percent of the state’s “carbon footprint.” Massachusetts has driven down these emissions with comprehensive policy innovation that builds upon national trends: the strictest energy efficiency standards in the country combined with ample incentives for homeowners and businesses to weatherize and upgrade equipment; the closure of coal burning plants; a requirement for utilities to purchase an ever-increasing percentage of renewable energy; strong incentives for solar; and leadership in the nation’s first “cap and invest” program, known as RGGI, which generates a modest price on carbon emissions and plows back the revenues into energy efficiency and clean energy.

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To drive further progress, Massachusetts has made promising big bets on hydroelectric power from Canada and large-scale offshore wind installations far off the coast. If these projects come to fruition, Massachusetts will be very well positioned to bend the emissions curve further down and to jump-start a new offshore wind industry in the United States.

Despite this success, Massachusetts is in danger of losing its lead and stalling its progress. The state remains overly dependent on natural gas, a fossil fuel. Once a clear leader in solar, a 2016 law cut compensation for electricity from community-shared solar systems, hurting those unable to put solar on their own roofs, including renters, who are disproportionately lower income.

On a key new technology, advanced energy storage, Massachusetts ranked 23rd in storage installation in 2016, well behind even states that are not known for a clean energy focus, such as Alabama, West Virginia, and Indiana (though new policies are in place now to boost storage).

If Massachusetts is to continue to cut emissions from power generation, it cannot rest on the policies in place today. I would start with deep energy efficiency retrofits of existing buildings, a bigger push for solar incentives for low- and moderate- income residents, and a bigger commitment to storage.

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Transportation Emissions Fail

Emissions from cars, trucks, and buses now account for about half of our state’s carbon footprint, and they are causing about the same amount of carbon pollution as they did 30 years ago. This is unacceptable. Emissions have stayed flat primarily because, even as vehicles get more fuel efficient, people are driving more due to long commutes, low gas prices, and an ailing public transportation system that does not provide a viable alternative for many.

Massachusetts, like other states, is not sufficiently capitalizing on the solutions. Take, for example, electric vehicles. With a relatively clean electric grid, driving an EV in Massachusetts is the carbon equivalent of driving a gas-powered car that gets over 100 miles per gallon, emitting three to four times less carbon pollution than a gas-powered car.

Yet despite its promise, EV adoption in Massachusetts is slow. This is a national problem, and in part is due to the higher upfront cost of electric vehicles and, until recently, the lack of popular models that can drive long distances. But even when judged against other states that face the same challenges, Massachusetts is lagging.

Similarly, Massachusetts is behind on a commitment to electric buses, which not only cut carbon pollution but other pollutants, thereby providing a welcome benefit particularly to dense urban neighborhoods that are “hot spots” for air pollution from transportation. (One of our recent studies shows that Asian, Black, and Latino populations in Massachusetts are exposed to between 25 percent and 36 percent more transportation-related pollution than white populations.) New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, as well as numerous cities abroad, have pledged to buy all-electric buses in the next 10 to 20 years; our cities have not.

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Fortunately, Massachusetts is working to tackle this problem. Governor Baker is leading the charge among other New England and mid-Atlantic states to establish a “cap and invest” program for transportation that will put a price on carbon emissions and plow the revenues back into clean transportation. The Massachusetts Legislature has restored an important rebate program to help make electric vehicles more affordable and seems poised to make a major investment in the public transportation system — a key to getting cars off the road. But much more needs to be done to drive down emissions from this sector. Massachusetts needs to make a major financial commitment, in the hundreds of millions per year, to electrify buses and trains, build a dense network of charging stations, provide sufficient incentives for the non-affluent to purchase EVs, and make public transportation an affordable and reliable option. Ultimately, Massachusetts must phase out the sales of vehicles powered by gasoline, as was recommended by Governor Baker’s Future of Transportation Commission.

A little over a year ago, the world’s leading climate scientists delivered a powerful warning — we are running out of time to avert ecological collapse and untold suffering from global warming. Since that time, out-of-control wildfires in Australia and many other disasters across the globe have hammered home that warning. Tackling this existential threat requires the participation of all. But what can our small state do? It can be an engine of innovation and a role model for others. But to continue to play this role, Massachusetts must advance new policies and make new investments to cut our carbon pollution, particularly from our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions — transportation.

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Ken Kimmell is president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He served as Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection under Governor Patrick, and on Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation. Send comments about this story to ideas@globe.com.