Sweeping climate law zeroes out carbon pollution for Massachusetts

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law late last week one of the nation’s most sweeping climate bills, putting the state on a path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

The law sets emissions limits of 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and 75 percent cuts by 2040 with interim limits every five years. To achieve those goals, the Bay State will add gigawatts of offshore wind power, spur cities and towns to adopt a net-zero building code, and set targets for electric vehicles, charging stations, and energy storage. 

The state expects that it will be able to fully eliminate 85 percent of all carbon emissions by 2050. For the remaining 15 percent, it will have to find other options, including tree planting or direct air capture of carbon dioxide. The net-zero target of 2050 is encouraged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to avoid warming of greater than 1.5˚ C.

The governor’s office and the legislature had been volleying the bill back and forth for months—this was the third time the legislature had sent the bill to Gov. Baker’s desk. Baker, a Republican, has publicly supported climate legislation, but he vetoed the first version in January and a second in February. The legislature, which is majority Democrat, adopted some of his suggested amendments and returned it a third time with a veto-proof majority. 

Over the next 30 years, Massachusetts will have to reduce carbon pollution in six broad sectors: electricity, transportation, residential buildings, commercial and industrial buildings, industrial processes, and natural gas distribution. Reductions in each sector are legally binding, though there is some wiggle room. If the state hits its overall target at each five-year period, it’ll allow one or two of the sectors to pollute more than allowed. The compromise will offer some flexibility in how each industry goes about reducing emissions while ensuring that no one sector significantly burdens the others.

Sector-by-sector reductions

In the electricity sector, Massachusetts has already green-lit over 1,600 MW of offshore wind split almost evenly between two projects just off Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Together, they are expected to meet about 12 percent of the state’s electricity demand. The new law calls for an additional 2,400 MW, bringing total capacity to 4,000 MW. It also counts nuclear, hydropower, and landfill methane sources toward net-zero goals, but biomass burning does not. 

For buildings, the state is pushing cities to adopt a new so-called “stretch code” that would encourage net-zero, high-performance buildings that are better sealed and insulated. Appliances will have to meet California’s efficiency standards, and homeowners and builders will likely have new incentives to install heat pumps for heating and cooling. Many of those provisions were fought by home and commercial builders, who lobbied Baker intensely to water them down. 

What the new law doesn’t do is allow cities to ban new natural gas hookups. Several cities in Massachusetts have already looked into that—and one passed a law doing so—only to be blocked by the attorney general. If cities are going to have that option, the legislature will have to pursue that in a separate bill. Natural gas has been targeted across the state not simply for its greenhouse gas emissions but for the leaky and dangerous infrastructure that distributes it. Several natural gas explosions have occurred in the state in recent years, including one in the Merrimack Valley that started over 80 fires and destroyed more than 40 homes.

On the transportation front, Massachusetts already has a modest rebate to encourage EV adoption, but the new bill is likely to drive new incentives. It will also encourage the installation of more charging stations.

Codifying environmental justice

The new law also codifies environmental justice policy in the state, which to this point had been limited to executive orders and other regulatory decisions. It introduces a new review process for projects that would pollute designated environmental justice communities, which the state defines as those suffering disproportionate impacts from pollution. The pollution impacts of new projects won’t be considered in isolation—they’ll be evaluated as part of the total cumulative pollution the community already endures.

There are a host of other provisions, too. The law increases funding for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, an economic development agency, so it can train more workers for clean energy jobs. It also creates a new program to prioritize solar power installations for low-income households, and it finally includes new regulations for municipal utilities, which until now had been exempt from renewable power requirements.

Massachusetts has been moving toward net-zero for years, but its previous steps were tenuous and ultimately would not have been sufficient to meet a 2050 goal. There are still many details to be ironed out, but the new law puts the state on track to eliminate its carbon emissions by then.

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