Missing Mass. Emissions Target Has Political Consequences

Data quietly released last week by the Baker administration uncovered a problem: emissions rose in the latest years data is available. When considering other energy trends, the data challenge the notion that Massachusetts will achieve its legally binding mandate to reduce emissions by 25% by 2020. State leaders need to acknowledge this real possibility and start doing something about it. Inaction now by lawmakers and Governor will come with severe political consequences otherwise.

Voters Want Climate Action

There is a will among Massachusetts voters for climate action, and specifically for carbon pricing. In the primary races for the 22 open seats in the Massachusetts legislature almost all listed climate change an issue, with the majority of candidates specifically advocating for a state-wide carbon price. And these climate focused candidates overwhelming won their primary elections. Climate action figured prominently in races against incumbents too. The strongest example being the upset by Nika Elugardo, a self-described climate champion, against the powerful House Ways & Means Chairman Jeff Sanchez.

The success of climate action candidates should be taken as a sign that voters care about the state’s commitment to its emissions reduction targets. If leaders in the legislature and the corner office do not do everything they can to meet the state’s 2020 target, the political fallout will be devastating. It’s not unbelievable to think that other incumbents would suffer a fate like Jeff Sanchez and that the Governor at the time would face a crisis that would consume a large part of their term.

Context: State Emissions Requirements

Every couple of years the state is required to publish data on emissions levels, meaning the data released recently is from 2015. This new data suggests that Massachusetts has lost ground in the past few years. In 2013 emissions were reduced by 19.7% from 1990 levels and by 21.5% in 2014. Progress in these years was lost when emissions increased in 2015, which saw only a 19.2% reduction from 1990 levels. In an email, the Baker administration predicted emissions levels to be reduced by 20.8% in 2016, a net increase in emissions from 2014 levels.

State law requires that greenhouse gas emissions meet strict targets set by the legislature in the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008. Based on 1990 emissions levels, the law mandates a 25% reduction by 2020 and an 80% reduction by 2050. The reversal in emissions reductions during these years suggest Massachusetts won’t be able to achieve its 2020 requirement in the two years remaining.

Making the 2020 requirement look even less achievable is the upcoming drop in nuclear power and the lag in offshore wind implementation. The Pilgrim nuclear plant is set for decommissioning next year, and although associated with a host of environmental and safety concerns, its power currently produces most of the state’s zero-emission electricity. As it shuts down, the electricity demand it previously met will shift to natural gas and coal-fired plants, which will dramatically increase the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Although offshore wind will eventually replace this capacity, it will be implemented too late to help the state achieve its 2020 emissions target. The first 800 MW of offshore wind will not interconnect with the grid until 2021, with the remaining 2.4 GW not even negotiated yet. These two interconnected trends predict a further increase in state emissions in the next year, on top of the increase reported under Governor Baker.

What Massachusetts Must Do

Given the very real chance that Massachusetts will fall short of its legal emissions reduction requirement in 2020, lawmakers and the Governor should be doing everything they can to prevent this.

For the Governor this would mean using the regulatory tools at his disposal to curb transportation emissions, the single largest source of CO2 pollution in the Commonwealth. Currently, the Governor has the legal authority to establish a price on carbon. This market-based mechanism would significantly reduce emissions while boosting the economy and creating local jobs. Yet instead of a clear plan for a solution being announced along with the most recent emission data, the Baker administration chose to hope no one would notice that emissions had gone up.

Massachusetts leaders need to recognize the real possibility of missing the 2020 requirement and come up with a plan now. Otherwise, they risk the political consequences of failure.