Over 10 years of effort came to an inglorious end late last month after Connecticut and Massachusetts pulled the plug on the Transportation Climate Initiative. TCI was the only regional policy designed to address the vast emissions from our cars, trucks, and other vehicles that cause climate change.
Transportation now far exceeds electricity generation in driving the emissions in the region: around 40 percent of greenhouse gases from Southern New England states come from vehicles, and this proportion is rising.
Southern New England states recently passed ambitious targets to reduce their emissions, 45-50 percent by 2030 in all three states, net zero by 2050 for Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Scientific studies show that this level of reduction in order to limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius and mitigate the worst effects of global warming: extreme storms, catastrophic flooding, loss of life. The daunting task facing state agencies and commissions now is to develop viable plans to meet those targets.
The Transportation Climate Initiative was held up as a crucial part of driving down emissions and raising revenue each year to pay for key programs to address climate change. No one has provided an answer as to what will fill either of those gaps — emissions transportation reductions and funding the transition off of fossil fuels.
The TCI effort was launched in 2010, facilitated by the Georgetown Climate Center and funded by major foundations hoping it could show the way forward to overcoming the first-mover problem for carbon pricing in the smaller states of the eastern United States. Thirteen states on the East Coast and Washington, D.C., were in the study group for TCI. The model was the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which since 2009 has put a price on the emissions from electricity-generating facilities in the region and allowed states to invest the revenues in solutions.
TCI was in work plans, meetings, workshops, and outreach activities for years, and released study results and a draft Memorandum of Understanding in late 2019. The modeling showed that emissions from transportation could drop 26 percent by 2032, but only 6 percent of those reductions were due to the TCI program. The majority of emissions reductions were expected from technology change and federal programs like fuel efficiency standards. Still, the revenues from TCI would have been substantial, providing millions to each state from its own payments, to invest in their self-chosen clean transportation programs.
Political viability was no doubt behind proposing such a meek TCI that was only projected to generate 6 additional percent emissions reductions. But like all carbon pricing plans, TCI always had a tough political road: As designed, it could have potentially raised gas prices by 5 to 9 cents a gallon. Oil producers, distributors, and vendors attacked the plan.
Some in the environmental movement were lukewarm about TCI: a coalition of groups like the Acadia Center and the Public Interest Research Groups supported the initiative more vocally, but many others had mixed feelings about cap-and-invest type programs for a number of reasons, including its timidness and process-and-justice issues. Yet other groups didn’t publicly say much. Despite efforts by the TCI team to address social justice issues directly, some environmental justice groups publicly opposed the initiative.
In December, 2019, 18 conservative think tanks across the region signed a joint letter that claimed that “TCI is intended to make purchasing transportation fuels so painfully expensive that the astronomically high price discourages people from buying it,” and that “TCI is a poorly conceived, fundamentally regressive, and economically damaging proposal.”
The coalition was led by the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a vocal conservative group, and many of the signatory groups are suspected or known to be supported by fossil-fuel-funded climate obstruction organizations, such as the Charles Koch Foundation. Many of these groups hide their donor lists.
Eight states never signed the TCI program’s Memorandum of Understanding; last month, the last three states withdrew. The initiative is now on pause.
Writers of that letter, and the opposition in general, have offered no viable and adequate alternative proposals to address climate change, which they don’t directly deny, but frequently fail to discuss or take seriously. They often say free markets and innovation will solve the problem, but that has not taken place in the 40 years that global warming has been widely understood. Because of organized obstruction of climate efforts, we are probably further from a whole-of-society response to climate change than we were in 1992.
Our studies of testimony and lobbying records in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island showed that climate and clean energy bills receive over 90 percent positive testimony in state house hearings, but most are killed in committees by major utilities, fossil fuel companies, and real estate lobbyists.
TCI’s demise teaches us several key lessons for the future. First, never underestimate the power of entrenched fossil fuel interests and their allies to stop progress on addressing climate change. State agencies and advocates for climate action need to understand this opposition well, and plan for how they are going to overcome it. Second, the TCI experience shows that opposition will come, regardless of how modest a proposal is. A nickel-a-gallon fee with huge benefits still leaves proponents open to being labeled as economy-wreckers by snipers from the right. Trying to accommodate the snipers is folly.
Finally we have to ask: What is Plan B without TCI for our states to meet their science-informed climate targets? Many steps lie ahead for adequately addressing the climate crisis, and despite careful development they could be chipped away and finally killed by well-funded and organized, coordinated obstruction networks. That is unless robust political planning is in place to go with all the technical plans.
Our job, as responsible adults seeking to address climate change — a bedrock existential issue of our time — is to propose just and effective solutions that are at the scale of the problem, plan for the opposition, and stand up for the solutions. Our very future requires us to do so.