Can Statewide Carbon Pricing Lead to a Carbon Free Boston?

In 2017, the city of Boston set its sights on the ambitious goal of becoming 100% carbon free by 2050. With this commitment, the Green Ribbon Commission in collaboration with Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy began to investigate how this could be achieved and develop a strategy for implementation.

Earlier this month, the result of nearly two years of research was released in an ambitious report that provides the city with a detailed roadmap to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Adhering to this plan will require significant effort both on the part of legislators and residents, as well as substantial financial investment, but the outcome will provide immeasurable benefits to the environment, the health and livelihood of Bostonians, and the economy.

While the report only addresses emission reductions at the city level, state legislation will prove crucial in providing leverage for Boston to achieve the demands of the report. There are currently bills in both the Massachusetts House and Senate proposing a statewide price on carbon and Bostonians should support these bills as they would assist the city in achieving their own municipal goals. The market forces associated with a carbon fee would incentivize diversion from fossil fuels and would complement the report’s plan for creating a carbon neutral Boston.

A statewide fee on carbon pollution would also help Massachusetts meet its target of reducing emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 and, partnered with the steps that have been outlined in this new report, can help Boston achieve carbon neutrality in that same time. State legislation is a significant influence for municipal policies, and a statewide policy such as the proposed carbon fee will provide legitimacy to Boston’s ambitious emission reduction goals. As the state’s capital and economic hub, Boston can be a leader within Massachusetts and demonstrate how a price on carbon is an opportunity for innovation and growth.

Takeaways From the Report

The Carbon Free Boston report identifies four main sectors where carbon emissions will be eliminated to reach the 100% carbon free goal. Each sector presents a unique set of challenges that must be addressed in order to implement the necessary changes.


Within the greater Boston area, private household vehicles currently account for nearly 70% of all transportation-related emissions. In order to reduce these, the city will need to invest heavily in its public transit system, making it more efficient and accessible for all residents, as well as fundamentally change the region’s culture and attitudes around mobility. The strategies that the report recommends include public transport discounts for people who walk or bike to a station rather than drive, an expansion of the biking and pedestrian network, an increase of areas reached by public transportation, and a fee for private vehicle trips within the Longwood, Backbay, Downtown, Seaport area and for parking.


Boston’s population is expected to grow by over 100,000 by 2050, resulting in the development of a projected 78,000 new residential units by this time. As this development occurs, it is crucial that these new buildings are constructed to meet energy efficiency standards, such as Passive House and LEED. Building to these standards has the dual benefit of saving energy and reducing costs; carbon-neutral buildings have the potential to save $600 million citywide by 2050, benefiting low and moderate income residents for whom energy costs make up a greater portion of their income. The report also addresses retrofitting existing buildings. The building standards for structures made at the turn of the 20th century are grossly inefficient, and retrofitting would provide an opportunity for buildings to be upgraded to decrease their emissions and render them more resilient.


Reducing waste and litter in Boston has been part of the city’s agenda to address climate change since 2014, and most recently resulted in the Zero Waste Boston Initiative that was launched in 2018. Waste is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions from collection to treatment, with 75% of waste currently sent to landfills or combusted, only 25% being diverted (recycled, composted, or repaired). Reducing emissions from municipal waste will mean increasing the percentage of waste that is diverted and increasing the accessibility of these venues for all residents. It will also mean the implementation of more citywide zero-waste initiatives, such as the plastic bag ban, which will require participation from everyone in the city. In addition to reduced emissions, a zero-waste Boston by 2050 will result in cleaner air and water for everyone.


Over the coming decades, Boston must couple its growing population and economy with the adoption of clean energy to meet electricity demands.  Clean energy markets in Boston represent a significant untapped opportunity to reach these demands while also creating new economic opportunities for residents. According to the report, solar energy alone can supply 20% of the city’s demand by 2050. Additionally, investing in biomass, biofuels, and other clean energy sources will help achieve the carbon free goal,  with renewable Energy Credits offsetting remaining emissions. All these options can, if executed equitably and thoughtfully, result in the creation of new economic opportunities and citywide access to affordable, clean energy.

In each of these sectors, achieving the goals is dependent on three interconnected strategies: improving energy efficiency in all activities, electrifying activities to the fullest extent, and purchasing 100% greenhouse gas-free electricity and sustainably sourced fuel. This is the foundation for a carbon-neutral city: one that minimizes energy demand, converts fossil fuel systems to utilize clean energy, and fully utilizes renewable energy opportunities. The combination of these strategies across each sector citywide will provide a pathway for Boston to be carbon free by 2050.

Can Carbon Pricing Play a Role?

While the report does not explicitly mention a market-based policy approach to reducing carbon emissions, imposing a state-level carbon fee would significantly accelerate the degree to which the city meets their 2050 goals. The report notes that voluntary programs and participation will not be enough to meet objectives, and change will require the implementation of robust policy measures.  A carbon fee provides stronger incentives for businesses and residents to reduce their carbon use over the next several decades and encourages greater investment in clean energy alternatives. A price on carbon in Massachusetts will expedite the goals set out in the report by creating new jobs, reducing the price of clean energy, and decreasing the reliance on fossil fuels. It will also provide additional benefits to the city’s most vulnerable populations, and will contribute to the environmental justice goals that are central to the report. This strategy should be viewed as a crucial component of the carbon neutrality agenda.

Carbon Pricing in Massachusetts

As of 2019, there are currently two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, proposing carbon pricing in Massachusetts. The bill in the House, HD.2370, proposes a fee that starts at $20 per ton of emissions, rising $5 each year until it reaches $40. From the revenue levied from this fee, 30% will be placed in a Green Infrastructure Fund invests in local clean transportation, resiliency, and renewable energy projects and 70% will be rebated to low and moderate income households and vulnerable employers. In the Senate, SD.1817 proposes a fee that will begin at $15 per ton of carbon and will increase by $5 a year until it reaches a ceiling of $60 per ton. 60% of this revenue will be invested in clean transportation with the rest supporting education, a new environmental health and justice trust fund, and energy efficiency projects.

Both of these bills should be viewed as policy measures which directly support the Carbon Free Boston Report. They further the goals outlined in the report by generating additional revenue to be invested in clean transportation, environmental justice, energy efficiency, and resiliency. Imposing a price on carbon will do more than reduce state greenhouse gas emissions; it will spur innovation and serve as a driver of the economy. Implementing market forces such as a carbon fee is an effective way to get organizations and communities to adapt their practices in response. It incentives a switch to clean renewable energy which, already becoming significantly more affordable, looks even more appealing when compared to a rising price of using fossil fuels.

As more organizations turn to renewable energy as an alternative fuel source, renewable energy industries (most notably solar and wind in Massachusetts) will have to expand to meet demand. The growth of these sectors will create thousands of new jobs and greater opportunities for Massachusetts residents. Additionally, if more organizations and residents are using solar and wind technology, there will be a greater incentive to invest in developing this technology further. The more that is invested in this development, the cheaper and more accessible it will become. Market forces such as these taxes are absolutely necessary to drive statewide change and to incentivize adopting new practices.

Putting a price on carbon in Massachusetts will provide the state with an opportunity to become a leader in clean energy innovation and be a model for a carbon free city. The time for Massachusetts to accelerate its response to climate change is now, and bills such as HD.2370 and SD.1817 are the bold measures that need to be taken. These bills serve as a clear complement to the Carbon Free Boston report, and provide a clear solution to achieving its objectives in an even more timely manner. By adopting these two new proposals, carbon neutrality will be an extremely attainable goal for Boston.