The Commonwealth’s push to encourage electric vehicles suffered a major setback last year, when a multistate agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks collapsed. That effort, spearheaded by Governor Charlie Baker, would have been a transformative program and could have cemented Baker’s own pollution-fighting legacy by speeding the Northeast’s transition away from planet-warming, gasoline-powered vehicles.
Now the Legislature has given Baker a second chance of sorts, sending him a climate bill with a potpourri of policy changes and one major deadline designed to reduce the Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emissions — and a sizable new commitment to electric cars.
It’s a worthy emphasis, because switching to zero emission cars — primarily battery-powered vehicles like Teslas and Nissan Leafs, but also potentially hydrogen-fueled cars — represents one of the most straightforward, technologically feasible ways to achieve the kind of rapid emissions reductions that Massachusetts will need in order to reach the goals it has set over the next decade. Although current supply chain issues make electric cars hard to find at dealers at the moment, an all-electric future is achievable with a big enough nudge from policymakers. And there is almost nowhere to go but up: There were just over 30,000 electric cars registered in Massachusetts at the end of 2021, out of around 4.3 million cars on the road.
The bill increases from $2,500 to $3,500 the rebate for residents who purchase a zero-emission vehicle, providing an incentive to switch. With that carrot, there’s also a crucial stick: The bill also mandates that all vehicles sold after 2035 must be zero-emission. It also sets the stage for transitioning school buses and transit systems away from diesel, propane, and other fossil fuels.
The bill is different from the regional, cap-and-trade approach that Baker favored in the failed emissions agreement, and it’s different from the climate bill that Baker proposed earlier this year, which was much heavier on research funding and workforce development. Still, the governor should sign it. (A spokesman for Baker said it was too soon to say what he will do.)
The compromise climate bill that the Legislature passed last week also includes a raft of other measures, from support for the nascent offshore wind industry to requirements for large buildings to track their carbon emissions.
Lawmakers also struck a clever compromise on one of the most controversial sections of the Senate’s initial version of the bill, which would have allowed up to 10 municipalities to bar connections for fossil fuel-powered appliances like gas stoves and furnaces in new construction and major remodels. The original proposal came in response to requests from several suburbs, including Brookline and Arlington, to bar natural gas hookups. That had raised some hackles among home builders and housing advocates, since requiring all-electric heating that’s typically more expensive to install than gas-fired would have raised the cost of construction in a state that’s already suffering from a housing crisis. The compromise will allow towns that have permitted and built an adequate amount of affordable housing, like Brookline, to participate in the 10-municipality pilot. But it likely excludes places like Arlington or Newton, which have thwarted new housing production.
There’s one major way in which Beacon Hill’s bill falls short: funding. There’s no pricetag for the climate legislation yet, but Commonwealth magazine reported that it will come in at less than the $750 million that Baker had asked for. Nor does it create any major new sources of revenue for climate projects. A proposal to add a fee to utility bills to generate funding didn’t make the final cut. That omission is part of a pattern; a big reason Baker’s Transportation Climate Initiative collapsed last year was because of anxieties in statehouses about adding a dime to gasoline prices.
But there’s only so much progress the state can mandate into existence. Reducing the state’s emissions — and adjusting to the impacts of climate change as hotter weather bakes our summers and rising oceans erode our communities — is going to take money. Just fortifying coastlines, a small portion of the infrastructure work that will need to be done to adapt to a changing climate, was estimated in 2018 to cost about $18 billion. A carbon tax remains the best option to raise revenue, but whatever lawmakers choose, they shouldn’t wait much longer to put money behind the state’s goals.
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