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Massachusetts surpassed its 2020 emissions goals — but there’s a big asterisk

Light traffic traveled on the northbound Expressway in Dorchester for the morning commute into Boston in January.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Massachusetts appears to have cut its 2020 carbon emissions even more than was required by a state law, according to an estimate announced Tuesday by the Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides.

That’s great news for a state that is racing to slash emissions more each year, but it also reflects a well-documented decline in emissions worldwide in 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis. So it’s not clear how much of the decline is attributable to the state’s climate policy, and how much can be attributed to the pandemic.

The official emissions numbers for 2020 won’t be known for several months still, due to a slow assessment and reporting process from the two federal agencies that have to supply Massachusetts with the necessary data. But in a hearing before the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, Theoharides announced that the state had reduced emissions in 2020 by an estimated 28.6 percent below 1990 levels — well past the 25 percent reduction that was required in the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008.

“This is not necessarily a cause for celebration,” she said. “2020 was an abnormal year by any stretch of the imagination. But we did also see the numbers ticking down in 2019, and we do believe that the climate policies we’ve been implementing, the energy changes we’ve been making, are having a significant effect.”

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Others remained skeptical.

Given the uncertainty around how much of the emissions reductions could be attributed to COVID-19, “we still don’t know exactly where the Commonwealth stands on its path to net-zero emissions,” said state Senator Cynthia Creem, who chaired the hearing. “What we know for certain is that meeting our 2030 emissions obligations will be a challenge.”

State Senator Michael Barrett, the lead author of the state’s 2050 climate plan, said the economic shutdown in March 2020 was a “lucky” break for the Baker administration on emissions levels. “Emissions appear to have popped back up in 2021,” he said.

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Indeed, while the International Energy Agency documented a steep emissions decline globally in 2020 as people flew and drove far less than usual, a March 2021 report noted that carbon dioxide emissions were rebounding strongly in early 2021. The report found that emissions in December 2021 were actually higher than those of December 2019, as major economies began to bounce back and economic activity drove energy demand higher.

The slow pace of emissions reporting has long troubled climate watchdogs, from advocates to legislators, because long-term goals mean little without a way to measure progress. That’s a problem that is expected to start improving starting this year, thanks to the new climate law’s requirement that the state report within 18 months whether an emissions limit has been met, according to Barrett.

The state’s ability to reach its 2020 emissions targets has not been a sure thing. In 2018 — the most recent year with complete data — the state actually saw an increase in emissions over the year before, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. That increase was caused by rising emissions from residential and commercial buildings, and from the natural gas distribution system, according to the data.

And while data for 2019 is still incomplete, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection estimates that emissions for that year were 22.6 percent below 1990 levels — raising questions about whether just one year later they would have been able to reach the mandated 25 percent reductions, had it not been for COVID-19.

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Much of Massachusetts’ progress toward slashing emissions in recent decades has been the result of switching buildings off of oil and propane, and onto natural gas. Now, more than half of Massachusetts households use natural gas, according to the federal Energy Information Association, far more that what’s consumed in New England as a whole, where 39.9 percent of households use natural gas.

While that may have helped lower emissions from their peak, advocates say that the state’s current reliance on natural gas may make it harder to achieve the biggest benchmarks in its required emissions cuts — a halving of emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, and reaching net-zero by 2050.

In order to get there, the state’s climate plan calls for one million homes to be converted to electricity for heat and 750,000 vehicles to switch to electric by the end of the decade — goals that the state is struggling to make progress on.

Caitlin Peale Sloan, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts, said her organization “is focused on following EEA’s planning for 2025, 2030, and beyond, which need to be carefully tailored to achieve our 2050 goals rather than just incremental goals like 2020.”

Similarly, state Senator Marc Pacheco said while he was cautiously optimistic about the estimates, there is a lot more work to be done. “Make no mistake — complying with our updated emission reduction laws going forward will require a more robust policy effort,” he said.

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Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shankman.