Lawmakers detail state climate change goals and future plans

BOSTON — Climate change will become the existential threat to Massachusetts after the pandemic, forcing the state to commit federal dollars to solving the problem, according to State Sen. Jo Comerford.

“We are emerging from a pandemic that has affected communities disproportionately. And we now face an existential threat from climate change,” said Comerford, D-Northampton. “With the arrival of federal dollars, we not only have a moral but also a pragmatic and fiscal responsibility to act at this time.”

Comerford was responding to testimony last week before the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, where lawmakers heard that Massachusetts had reduced its greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2020 by about 28.6% .

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides noted that a full annual report is still due and will aim to incorporate the anomaly that was 2020. This will help highlight the effect of the pandemic on reducing emissions.

“The pandemic has really dampened economic and physical activity. It has helped reduce emissions,” said Sen. Michael Barrett, D-Lexington. “We reached the required limit because of that. We didn’t get there because of our climate action.”

Massachusetts exceeded the requirement to reduce carbon emissions to 25% below 1990 baseline levels by 2020 under the Global Warming Solutions Act. It must aim to halve its 1990 emissions level by 2030, achieve a reduction of at least 75% by 2040 and net zero levels by 2050 under the leaf policy road for the climate.

According to the latest comprehensive annual emissions report available since 2018, Massachusetts has seen the largest decline in the electricity consumption sector. The data also highlighted two sectors that have not yet seen significant emissions declines and should now be under the microscope as the state prepares to meet its long-term goals.

“Transportation and buildings are the biggest emitters of carbon emissions in our economy,” Theoharides said. “Over 50% of all the emissions we need to reduce come from personal transport and residential space heating.”

This effort can be aided by a total of $9.5 billion through federal bipartisan infrastructure funds and additional money through competitive grants.

The funds will help offset many setbacks like the state’s recent withdrawal from the Transportation and Climate Initiative. The initiative was a collaborative effort between Massachusetts and its neighboring states to limit vehicle emissions and tax fuel distributors to generate funds to invest in energy-efficient projects.

The state will now rely on allocated federal funds to meet transportation emissions goals.

Massachusetts will receive $63 million over five years to build electric vehicle charging infrastructure and $2.2 billion will be provided to the MBTA which was originally slated to exit the Transportation and Climate Initiative. An additional $18 million per year will be provided to fund transportation-related carbon reduction programs. The electrification of ports, cycle paths, zero-emission heavy goods vehicles are other prospects that will benefit from these funds.

The only downside is that federal funds won’t be sustainable for long-term plans. Theoharides stressed that the state will have to find a regional alternative to generate funds. But for short-term use, the funds are “significant”.

Massachusetts is also developing a new net-zero opt-in extensible code. This is a carefully crafted building code that, if approved, will mandate energy-efficient alternatives with the ideal goal of fully electrifying buildings. Net zero code is an option for municipalities willing to explore energy efficient alternatives.

But at the same time, the code doesn’t ban the use of fossil fuels entirely — something lawmakers have criticized as “shortsighted.”

“We’ve already received petitions on municipal bylaws to require electric options for buildings and ban fossil fuels. That tells us that’s a popular option,” said Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton. “So hopefully the code can be changed to make it a requirement rather than encouraging the use of fossil fuels.”

The final version of the plan, expected on July 1, will include approved changes and sector-specific emissions limits for the 2025 and 2030 targets. Theoharides assured his team was “on schedule” to meet the deadline. Long-term plans and emission sub-limits for the 2050 target will be due on January 1, 2023.

“We really need to move forward aggressively in each of these areas,” said Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton. “We need to take the tools out of the legislative toolbox and get to work.”

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Teresa H. Sadler