Ambitious Mass. emissions plan called lagging

Study says state must pick up pace, or mandated pollution goal won’t be met

Four years after Governor Deval Patrick announced ambitious plans to blunt the impact of global warming, the state is falling behind in its efforts to reduce emissions of gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, according to the first comprehensive review of the administration’s climate change goals.

The report by MassINC, a nonprofit, independent think tank in Boston, found that the state is not on track to meet its interim goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

The state also could face major challenges in meeting its overall goal of reducing emissions 80 percent by 2050, according to the study.


The report found that unless the administration makes changes or there are significant shifts in the energy market, the state risks falling well below its 2020 target.

“Our overarching conclusion is that, although Massachusetts has implemented many effective and indeed nation-leading programs, there is a real likelihood that the state will fall short,’’ the authors wrote in the report, whose release coincides with the observation of Earth Day. “To ensure Massachusetts hits the target it is legally bound to achieve, the state must accelerate its effort.’’

The authors of the 127-page report noted that many of the lagging initiatives involve the transportation network, which accounts for about 36 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

They also cited delays and potential obstacles with the state’s renewable energy programs, including vocal opposition to the administration’s plan to import additional electricity from Quebec. That hydroelectric power would reduce reliance on emission-producing power plants, but critics doubt the benefits and feasibility of the plan, and focus on the environmental costs of running new power lines.

The report also states that to meet the emissions goals there must be better collaboration among state agencies and more education of the public about the potential threats of climate change, which include rising sea levels, prolonged heat waves and droughts, and the spread of pests and disease.


“The current degree of coordination is inadequate given the importance and complexity of the greenhouse gas reduction tasks,’’ they wrote. “It is not sufficiently clear who exactly is in charge of the overall effort.’’

Administration officials disputed the report’s findings, asserting that the emission goals remain within reach.

They noted that the initiative to reduce greenhouse gases was part of an unprecedented state effort - the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act - to combat climate change. This effort included joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program that seeks to reduce carbon emissions in the Northeast, and the Green Communities Act, which expands energy-efficiency programs and renewable energy projects.

“When you set the most aggressive greenhouse gas targets in the country, it’s going to take a lot of work,’’ said Richard K. Sullivan Jr., secretary of energy and environmental affairs. “But that’s what we’re doing, and when you ask every single citizen to join us in the energy revolution, and when that happens, and I fully believe it will, we will hit the most aggressive targets in the country.’’

He noted that the administration didn’t set its emissions targets for the end of the decade until 2010, and that there’s enough time to ensure the objectives are achieved. “All of our agencies have been working on this across the board,’’ he said.


Sullivan added that the administration has already implemented much of what the report recommends. He noted that two of his undersecretaries are overseeing five committees that are responsible for promoting efficiency in buildings, energy, and transportation; reducing a range of emissions; and ensuring the state adapts to the predicted effects of climate change. He said his office next month will introduce a Web-based tool to allow the public to track the administration’s efforts to reduce emissions.

“As with any plan, it always has to be reviewed,’’ he said. “You don’t just throw it on the shelf. There may be pieces that come out or go in.’’

He said the report apparently failed to take into account the reduced emissions from the closing of a coal-fired power station in Salem. He added that 42 percent of the state’s population already lives in green communities - cities and towns that have launched plans to reduce municipal energy use by 20 percent within five years.

“There are eight years still to go,’’ he said. “The state is keenly focused on hitting our goals.’’

The authors of the report said their projections could change depending on the rate of economic growth, oil and natural gas prices, and federal action. They note that some of the state’s reduction in greenhouse gases has occurred as a result of the economic downturn as well as because of the increased use of natural gas over coal and oil, as natural gas prices have plunged in recent years.


Among the chief obstacles to achieving the administration’s goals, the reports says, is opposition to the cost and disruption of extending electricity transmission lines from northern to southern New England. The plan to import hydroelectric power from Canada, which also faces significant financial and regulatory hurdles, accounts for about a fifth of the administration’s 25 percent interim emissions reduction goal.

“Although transmission proposals are on the table . . . there is no guarantee that any of them will be permitted, financed, and built,’’ the authors wrote. “For reasons beyond the state’s control, the projected 5.4 percent reduction in emissions may not materialize.’’

Sullivan said the state remains confident the Quebec power will eventually come on line and benefit the state.

The authors said another 7.1 percent of the overall emissions-reduction goal is in jeopardy because of delays or failures in implementing regional clean fuel standards, commercial refrigeration improvements, and the so-called GreenDOT program, which was designed to make the state’s transportation system more energy-efficient by incorporating the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions into planning, and promoting public transportation over highway use.

They said the shortcomings may be exacerbated by the MBTA’s decision this month to increase fares by an average of 23 percent and cut services, increasing the likelihood some commuters will use their cars instead. They added that cutbacks in federal aid could impede the state’s ability to launch new efforts to reduce single occupancy travel on highways.

“Although [the administration] has started some interesting, useful activities, its implementation [of the GreenDOT program] has been inconsistent for a policy that is supposed to be a high priority,’’ the report authors wrote. “With the current slow pace and poorly resourced way it is proceeding, it is difficult to believe that GreenDOT will achieve the emissions reductions projected for 2020.’’


Susan Reid, director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, called the report “a timely wake-up call.’’

She said she hoped the report would prod state lawmakers to provide more funding for public transportation and encourage state officials to reconsider the reliance on importing electricity from Canada.

“As we observe mounting evidence of the impacts of climate change . . . there is an urgent need for stepped-up action to address the root causes,’’ said Reid, who helped shape the report as an informal adviser.

She added: “It is CLF’s hope that this hard look at Massachusetts’ progress on climate change will compel action to ensure we remain on track to meet our short- and long-term climate objectives. Success is our only option.’’

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.