To combat climate change, Massachusetts needs to break these habits — and soon
In Plymouth, the state is letting its biggest single source of carbon-free electricity vanish — to cheers.
In Everett, the Commonwealth is choosing to rely on imported liquefied natural gas from Russia, or Trinidad and Tobago, in deference to the environmental movement’s current shibboleths around pipelines.
For a state that calls climate change a priority, Massachusetts sometimes makes odd decisions. And it’s not because the state is rife with climate-science deniers. Rather, the state has had to navigate around an inordinate number of sacred cows and not-in-my-backyard prejudices, even when doing so leads predictably to higher greenhouse gas emissions. State law reflects that way of thinking, putting an emphasis on only certain types of renewables, mainly wind and solar, regardless of whether they’re the best, cheapest, or fastest options available to reduce emissions.
Over the last year, the Globe has tried to point out some of the consequences of the state’s lack of pragmatism. Climate change is serious enough that a more practical response is needed, one that considers all emissions, including the ones outside the state’s borders, and strategically uses every tool available to reduce them. Right now, though, it’s as if the state and many climate advocates want to win this chess game — but by using only the bishops.
If the state fails to reach its 2020 emission reduction targets, a big reason will be because of its failure to tap Canadian hydropower earlier. Its reluctance to fully exploit cheap natural gas to displace even dirtier fuels, and the disappearance of two nuclear plants from the region, also hurts. With so many solutions ruled out as too controversial, the state has been unable to make the kind of strategic trade-offs needed for an effective energy policy.
That said, there’s definitely been some steps in the right direction. It was the Legislature, after all, that in 2016 overcame years of resistance to invite Canadian hydropower in the first place, setting up the fights now playing out over the planned Maine transmission line.
And the Baker administration last year imposed a clean energy standard, a technology-neutral requirement on utilities that focuses on the goal — clean power — rather than prescribing how to get there. It was a departure from traditional policies like the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which mandated a relatively narrow menu of choices like wind and solar. (Baker’s policy still doesn’t apply to older clean-power sources, including dams and the Seabrook nuclear power station in New Hampshire.)
One reason to worry about fighting with so many options ruled out for ideological reasons is that it raises the risk of failure. Or, by narrowing the state’s choices so much, and leaving achievable reductions unachieved, it’ll box policy makers into more drastic options that will be costly enough to create a political backlash.
Conservatives like to cite the recent riots against a gas tax in France as a supposed warning. But a bigger danger is ending up like Germany. No country has tried harder on climate change, and for years Germany has been held up as an example. But its renewables-only strategy has left its emission reductions stuck in neutral for almost a decade, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics, and the consumer costs have fueled far-right parties opposed to climate action at all. Germany’s still an example — of how the best intentions can backfire.
Compare that with Britain, which has cut emissions more — 39.2 percent since 1990, according to the OECD, compared with 27.3 percent in Germany. The British are betting on new nuclear power plants, advancing carbon-capture technology to clean up fossil fuel use, and, instead of fetishizing pipelines, figuring out ways to repurpose them for a low-carbon future.
Climate denialism isn’t the only barrier to an effective climate strategy. So is tying the hands of policy makers and holding out for perfect solutions. If the state is going to be the climate leader it says it is, it’ll need to break those habits — and soon.