Environmental advocates across Massachusetts are calling on the state to allocate federal COVID-19 relief money to fight the climate crisis.
“We need to seize the moment,” Sarah Dooling, executive director of Massachusetts Climate Action Network, told the Globe.
The American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, passed by Congress in March 2021, provided roughly $5.3 billion to Massachusetts for pandemic recovery to be allocated by the state legislature. This past April, Governor Charlie Baker proposed using $3.5 billion — including $2.3 billion from ARPA and $1.2 billion in capital bond authorizations — for economic development. The proposal included $1.2 billion for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
But to actually allocate those funds, Baker needs the legislature’s buy-in, and so far, Beacon Hill officials haven’t passed legislation codifying that funding. If they’re going to do so, they’ll have to move fast, since the session ends on July 31.
Climate advocates, environmental justice organizers, labor union officials, and clean energy business representatives gathered outside the State House on Monday morning to demand the state use money from ARPA to speed the renewable energy transition.
The advocates, including members of 350 Massachusetts, GreenRoots, the Acadia Center, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103, and others, held signs that said “Pass a bold climate action bill!” and wind turbines made of cardboard.
“The message today was plain and simple: We don’t have time to wait,” Joe Curtatone, president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council, who spoke at the press conference, said in an interview afterward.
Curtatone said Baker’s plan should just be the “minimum” amount of climate investments from ARPA. For instance, Baker’s plan included $750 million to boost the clean technology sector. But really, Curtatone said, that number should be $1 billion, or even higher.
“If we do this right we’ll be making investments ... even above and beyond the $750 million,” he said.
Curtatone said an injection of public funds could help the state to become a leader in the new economy. He noted that Baker’s predecessor, Deval Patrick, led an effort starting in 2007 and 2008 to invest $1 billion over 10 years into biotech and medical research, paving the way for rapid growth.
But if legislators stall too much on investing in green technology, he said, “we will fall behind,” allowing other regions to lead the way in clean technology.
Also, on Monday, another group of climate activists held a separate press conference at Salem Heights, Salem’s largest affordable housing complex, which is currently going through a climate-friendly retrofit process. There, they pushed lawmakers to allocate $250 million in ARPA funds to decarbonize buildings in Massachusetts in addition to the funding Baker authorized. This level of federal funding, they said, doesn’t become available often.
“We have a kind of perfect moment that we have to really take advantage of with this fund,” Emily Jones, a senior program officer of Local Initiatives Support Corporation‘s Green Homes program, said at the event.
The fund would be used to retrofit existing buildings used by the state’s most vulnerable residents, like affordable housing, public housing, low- and moderate-income homes, municipal buildings, schools, and small businesses owned by women and people of color. It would also prioritize areas most impacted by pollution and the changing climate.
Dooling, of Massachusetts Climate Action Network, who spoke at the event, said the fund could help Massachusetts meet its carbon reduction goals. Most buildings across the state still have gas-powered stoves, and most of the energy powering homes still comes from fossil fuels. So nearly a third of Massachusetts’ emissions come from its buildings, she said in an interview.
She also noted that since climate-friendly building upgrades can be expensive — and that many state incentives mostly target homeowners — it’s difficult for lower-income people and renters to take advantage of them.
“Environmental justice communities, low income communities, they haven’t enjoyed the benefits from what other communities keep saying is the ‘clean energy transition,’” she said.
The fund could also boost public health, she said. Gas stoves, for instance, can create levels of indoor air pollution that would be illegal outside, studies show. And she said the fund could also help cut residents’ utility bills, since it could help low-income housing become more energy efficient.
She also noted that right now, 3,500 apartments have committed to zeroing out carbon emissions through a program spearheaded by Local Initiatives Support Corporation called the 1,000 Apartment Challenge, but they haven’t been able to do so due to a lack of funding.
“The market as a regulator of the distribution of funds is insufficient. There needs to be state investment,” she said.
Curtatone said allocating ARPA funding to climate action should just be the beginning. Surplus monies from the state budget should also be poured into climate efforts.
This article has been updated to reflect that Baker’s $1.2 billion for climate proposal came as part of an April 2022 bill rather than a December 2021 bill. In December, the Legislature authorized separate ARPA appropriations, which included about $300 million for climate.