Over two decades, Massachusetts has been a leader in confronting the climate crisis — setting aggressive benchmarks to reduce the Commonwealth’s carbon pollution before boldly adopting a mandate last year that requires the state to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
But even the most ambitious climate goals mean little if they don’t usher in the policies, investments, and innovations needed to help Massachusetts effectively and equitably achieve them. And this is where the state has run into a challenge.
Two recent developments threatened the state’s efforts to clean its economy: the suspension of the regional Transportation and Climate Initiative, which would invest in clean transportation across the East Coast, and the rejection by Maine voters of a transmission line to deliver Canadian hydropower that would bolster the Commonwealth’s clean energy resources.
These were disappointments. But individual policies are meant to serve broader goals. For Massachusetts, that means slashing the climate pollution from transportation and electricity generation.
What’s important now is that the state find other ways to achieve these goals. Thankfully, there are options.
The decision to shift away from TCI emphasizes the urgent need for the Commonwealth to clean up its transportation system, which is its leading source of climate pollution. With more than $9 billion in new federal infrastructure money on the way, the Baker administration can deliver high-impact transportation projects, including the long-needed connection between the MBTA’s Red and Blue Lines, as well as a version of the I-90 project in Allston that prioritizes improved rail transit and biking and walking infrastructure. Officials should also seek creative ways to use federal funds to cut transportation pollution — like Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s plan to pay for fare-free service on certain MBTA bus lines, which will increase transit ridership while financially helping those who rely on buses.
Much of Massachusetts will continue to depend on cars, and it’s the state’s responsibility to ensure they pollute as little as possible. To reach net-zero emissions by 2050, all new car sales need to be zero-emissions by 2035. It’s critical that the state expand electric vehicle infrastructure and help residents with this transition well ahead of time. The Baker administration and the Legislature should increase the state subsidy for electric passenger vehicles, which has fallen behind other leading states. And it should implement a system so that buyers can get these rebates when they’re purchasing their cars and not months later. That would make it easier for drivers to buy cleaner vehicles that will save them money on gas and maintenance but that they may be unable to afford due to the higher upfront costs.
The state needs to speed up the shift to electrifying commercial vehicles. The trucks and vans that move goods around the state are central to the economy, but they’re responsible for a disproportionate share of emissions and air pollution, which causes heart and respiratory disease. State officials are poised to approve the Advanced Clean Trucks rule, which would require manufacturers to grow zero-emission vehicle sales over time. Massachusetts issued a preliminary rule for this program at the end of the year, and it must now lock in this progress by finalizing the rule promptly in 2022.
As for where all that power will come from? Massachusetts still has options for clean electricity — including through Maine, where the power line may still be an option. Or the state could consider alternative routes to bring in hydropower from Canada. The great news is that the offshore wind industry is off to a promising start in Massachusetts, and the enthusiasm from both state policy makers and the Biden administration suggests it may well become a hallmark industry for the state.
Massachusetts has become a hotbed of innovation in the clean energy transition, which represents a tremendous economic opportunity. The research and development around advanced solar power and nuclear fusion offers a tantalizing glimpse at affordable, carbon-free energy sources that could power Massachusetts in the coming decades. Breakthroughs in long-duration energy storage, for instance, will be crucial to ensuring access to clean power even when weather is not cooperating or demand spikes. But policy makers here and at the regional level must be prepared to help usher the adoption of these technologies within the grid and enact policies now to ensure the electric grid is used efficiently and that it prioritizes clean energy sources.
TCI and the Maine transmission line were important tools that could have helped Massachusetts in its fight against the climate crisis. But it’s clear there are other options. If those initial proposals are no longer on the table, then the state must move quickly and decisively to others. It’s not as if it has much of a choice: Massachusetts’ climate commitments aren’t just a a legal requirement. They will build the industries of tomorrow and protect our future.
Mindy Lubber is CEO and president of Ceres. She served as regional administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency New England under the Clinton administration.