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How to fight climate change without Washington

Spencer Platt/Getty Images/File

MASSACHUSETTS WAS ALREADY planning for a Trump presidency way back in 2008. It just didn’t know it yet.

That year, the Commonwealth and neighboring states began readying a new plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, which form a growing share of the state’s overall contribution to global climate change.

A regional program to encourage cleaner fuels would be economically viable, the states concluded in 2011, though many details still needed to be ironed out. But the idea was shelved when the states couldn’t all get on the same page.

Now it’s time to dust off that study. The ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency probably spells an end to all federal leadership on climate change for the next four years. States have to pick up the slack, and reviving the program — known by the jargony term “low-carbon fuel standard” — would be a good way to start.

The smelly stuff that drivers pump into their cars and trucks is all similar, and pollutes the atmosphere in much the same way when it’s burned. But looking solely at so-called tailpipe emissions gives an incomplete picture of the way cars and trucks contribute to climate change. The pathway from oil well to refinery to pump can vary greatly: some types of oil production, like Canada’s tar sands, are more “carbon-intensive.” That’s true for traditional petroleum, as well as newer sources like biogas. Even the distance fuel has to travel factors into its carbon intensity; an oil tanker traveling thousands of miles spews carbon emissions along the way.

Encouraging a transition to fuels that generate less carbon emissions across their whole life cycle was the driving force behind California’s low-carbon program, which has been in place since 2007 and served as a model for the northeastern initiative. It’s mostly invisible to drivers, and doesn’t require any changes to vehicles themselves, but it gives refiners a strong financial incentive to generate less pollution as they manufacture diesel or gasoline.


“It’s the best possible policy instrument that I know of for addressing the decarbonization of transportation fuels,” said Daniel Sperling, an engineering professor at the University of California, Davis, who was one of the architects of the program. To implement the initiative, the state set up a market-based system of tradeable credits. Refiners whose fuel has a high carbon intensity — maybe it uses corn ethanol produced at coal-fired plants, or has been imported thousands of miles by ship from Cameroon or Venezuela — need to buy credits from lower intensity producers. To keep track of the carbon intensity of different fuels, the state publishes a table of different sources.


In practice, the program in California has spurred fuel producers to seek more efficient methods For instance, producers have turned to recyling cooking oil from restaurants, a far less carbon-intensive way of generating the biodiesel that’s mixed into most diesel fuel. A company the generated biodiesel from cooking oil would earn credits; a refiner that used dirty Venezuelan crude would probably need to buy them.

The result: California is on track to reduce the carbon intensity of its transportation fuels by 10 percent. That number might not sound like much — and in fact, reducing intensity doesn’t automatically lead to lower overall emissions if people just drive the same cars more. But if the program is coupled with higher vehicle fuel efficiency, and investments in public transit so that fewer residents need to drive in the first place, a low-carbon fuel standard could lead to significant reductions in carbon pollution from cars.

Two nearby West Coast jurisdictions, Oregon and British Columbia, have copied the California model. But as northeastern planners discovered in 2011, this region presents additional challenges. California’s fuel comes largely from California refineries, making it easier for the state to regulate them. There are few refineries in the northeast, meaning the program would have to be designed differently here.

Determining the “point of regulation” was one of the trickiest parts of the 2009-11 study, and one of the questions that was unresolved when the states put it aside. In all likelihood, distributors or wholesalers of fuel, rather than refiners, would have to shoulder the regulatory burden.

A single-state fuel standard is also easier to administer. The northeast plan initially involved 11 states, and it would still be preferable for large regional groups or the federal government to take the lead implementing a complex new regulation. But the prospects of responsible policy-making on the federal level appear to be zero. As long as larger northeastern states like Connecticut and New York participate, Massachusetts should be able to move forward.


An additional reason the Commonwealth should be focusing on emissions from transportation is that emissions from electricity generation have plunged so much already. Due to a combination of factors, including the rise of natural gas and state-mandated renewable energy, Massachusetts slashed its carbon emissions from electricity by more than 40 percent between 1990 and 2013. The passage of new electricity legislation in Massachusetts last year cleared the way for reaching the state’s electricity-sector goals with low-carbon hydropower from Canada.

That leaves transportation emissions, which have barely budged across the same time span, as the next big climate challenge at the state level. A few features for a northeastern fuel standards program could include:

■   Link it to the California, Oregon, and British Columbia programs, so that credits can be traded among all four. California and Oregon are in the process of harmonizing their programs. The more jurisdictions coordinate, the better.

■   Include heating oil. Home heating oil, which is used primarily in the northeast and is essentially identical to diesel fuel, contributes to climate change. Although it may prove sensitive politically, including heating oil would allow the region to tackle a second source of emissions at the same time.


■   Coordinate a low-carbon fuel standard with a stepped-up effort to popularize electric cars. One major change in the marketplaces since the northeast states shelved their study in 2011 has been the growing popularity of electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla. Emissions associated with electric cars depend on how electricity is generated, and in Massachusetts generators are moving swiftly away from coal. State incentives for electric cars already exist, and are a promising way to encourage drivers to switch. A low-carbon fuel standard could help hasten the transition. The credits could go to utilities, giving them a reason to encourage customers to buy electric cars, or to companies that build charging stations.

■   Create a fair, transparent, system for rating the carbon intensity of fuels. The biggest administrative headache for California was to develop a way to measure just how carbon-intensive each fuel is, and then to reassess those determinations as producers change their methods. It’s a challenge, but Massachusetts should have the expertise to meet it.

The election of Donald Trump triggered a wave of despondency in Massachusetts. Nothing about the administration’s first few weeks has tempered any those fears. But the Commonwealth isn’t powerless to limit the damage he can do. With its neighbors — or without them — Massachusetts should be picking up where it left off in 2011, and doing its part to fill the void in Washington.