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OPINION

There’s no time to waste — Baker, Legislature must enact the climate bill

Providing regulatory certainty is the best way to spur industry innovation to meet major pollution challenges.

A Boston firefighter wades through waters from Boston Harbor that flooded onto Long Wharf in Boston in January 2018.
A Boston firefighter wades through waters from Boston Harbor that flooded onto Long Wharf in Boston in January 2018.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Massachusetts legislators and Governor Charlie Baker are close to getting the state’s most ambitious and bipartisan climate change legislation across the finish line. Never before has there been a climate bill as ambitious or that included equity in such a concerted way. Our leaders must now come together so this bill can become law.

After two years of hearings, extensive input, and productive negotiations, the bill is an impressive achievement. For starters, it puts the Commonwealth on a net-zero carbon emissions path while ensuring economic growth and job creation in promising clean energy sectors such as offshore wind. It also strengthens appliance efficiency standards and allows communities to adopt more stringent building codes. And it takes important steps to address longstanding environmental justice issues in neighborhoods that bear the biggest brunt of fossil fuel pollution.

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While disagreements remain between the Legislature and the governor — such as interim emission targets for 2030 and 2040 — the bill has strong public and business support.

This is an urgent opportunity. Massachusetts is already being pummeled by worsening climate impacts, including rising sea levels, more damaging coastal storms, declining commercial fish stocks, and the spread of vector-borne illneses such as Lyme disease. Boston faces the biggest perils. Popular waterfront landmarks such as Joe Moakley Park in South Boston are routinely flooded due to 9 inches of sea level rise over the past century. If global carbon emissions aren’t managed soon, water levels in Boston are expected to rise by another 8 inches by 2030 and as much as 3 feet by 2070 — a terrifying scenario for a city that is largely built on a low-lying landfill.

Pollution from cars and trucks is another climate-related impact, especially when it comes to long-term exposure to particulate matter, which is disproportionately higher in low-income communities. A recent Harvard School of Public Health study found that burning fossil fuels kills an estimated 7,600 Massachusetts residents every year, most of them in areas close to major highways and power plants such as Chelsea and Revere.

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The bill sets a 2050 net-zero emissions goal that is in line with President Biden’s climate agenda as well as dozens of other countries, including the European Union. It also strengthens the state’s renewable portfolio standard, ensuring that 40 percent of electric power is derived from cleaner energy by 2030.

While Baker has pushed for softer, more flexible statewide interim targets for 2030 and 2040, the Legislature’s more ambitious and binding goals — 50 percent emission reductions by 2030 and 75 percent by 2040 — are necessary our future health and the planet. Given the colossal threat to our state and our world, we cannot afford looser, easily attainable goals. Massachusetts needs ambitious mandated targets aligned with international efforts to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Providing regulatory certainty is the best way to spur industry innovation to meet major pollution challenges.

Baker’s amendment to include cumulative impacts — a key environmental justice concern — in the bill’s final language is commendable. The proposal would allow the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, when considering a permit, to factor not only the impact of a specific project, but also the cumulative impact of pollution in the community. It is also encouraging to see lawmakers prioritizing access to the state’s solar programs for low-income residents and boosting renewable energy workforce training. Such efforts to integrate equity and environmental justice into climate policies are long overdue — not just in Massachusetts but across the country. It’s unacceptable when national studies show Black Americans are getting only 8 percent of the jobs in the booming solar industry but account for more than 13 percent of the population.

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It is clear that the Legislature and the governor have big ambitions and good intentions in getting this climate legislation done right. But they must act quickly and seize the enormous opportunity to build an economically prosperous, equitable, net-zero-emissions future in Massachusetts — one that will benefit the next generation and the existing community alike.

Mindy Lubber is CEO and president of the sustainability nonprofit Ceres.