In January 2020, the Massachusetts Senate proposed an innovative way of providing independent oversight over the state’s climate policy. The chamber’s recently passed package of climate bills includes language establishing a climate policy commission to help the Commonwealth achieve its emissions reductions requirements. The commission provides an example for other states on how to hold an executive branch accountable to meeting climate goals set by legislation.
Though the Massachusetts House has yet to take action on the bill that outlines this commission (S.2500), the bill represents an important step towards meeting the state’s emission targets by establishing the commission and moving the state forward with carbon pricing. According to Senator Michael Barrett, the climate policy commission is intended to be “an independent guardian of the future”, with two jobs: (1) “tell us if we’re on track in bringing down emissions” and (2) “advise us on what to do next.” Modeled off the existing Health Policy Commission in Massachusetts, the CPC would be an independent and scientific public entity that tracks and assesses the state’s performance with regards to its climate change policies, especially its greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets.
In essence, the CPC would help to ensure that existing state climate policy is implemented effectively by the Governor. It does this by establishing a third-party organization, governed more by science than politics, to oversee the Massachusetts Governor as they go about reducing harmful carbon emissions. Through its independent status within the state government and by basing its recommendations on scientific evidence, the CPC can offer objectivity, credibility, and long-term continuity in the state’s climate policy. After examining the CPC’s establishment in more detail, it is clear that opportunities remain to further ensure its effectiveness. We can adopt guidance from other national models – especially that of the successful Committee on Climate Change in the United Kingdom – to further strengthen the CPC’s activities.
The Climate Policy Commission is based on the preexisting structure laid out by the Health Policy Commission.
The full Commission is governed by a Board (known as the Commission), which consists of nine members — the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, two members appointed by the Attorney General, and six members appointed by the Governor. The Attorney General must appoint the two members according to their expertise in either energy, economics, public health, climate science, or statistics. Meanwhile, the Governor must select four appointees from professors nominated by accredited research universities in Massachusetts, one appointee from those nominated by the state’s Implementation Advisory Committee, and one appointee according to the same expertise criteria given to the Attorney General.
The Executive Director
The Commission appoints an Executive Director. Their responsibilities include executing administrative functions, employing necessary staff, filing personnel reports, reporting all operations to the CPC, managing the CPC’s budget, and undertaking any other activities necessary to achieving the CPC’s objectives.
The Advisory Council
In addition to the Commission, there is also an advisory council. Its purpose is to provide input from a variety of stakeholders on the overall operations and policies of the CPC. Members will be appointed by the Governor, and will represent the following sectors: “environmental protection, low-income and moderate-income population advocacy, children, disproportionately impacted communities, small green energy business, electric power generation and distribution, transportation, rural/suburban/urban households, farming, consumer protection, housing, commercial development, industrial and manufacturing, sectors that may displace workers, land use, and local government.”
The CPC’s central responsibility is tracking, assessing, and facilitating public and private sector progress towards economy-wide emissions reductions goals. More specifically, the CPC must:
- Assess, comment, and issue recommendations on content, design, management, and effectiveness of specific policies that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Assess, comment and issue recommendations on any policy that, within the CPC’s purview, has implications especially for low-income people and regions of Massachusetts.
- Monitor the adoption of best practices, standards, and technologies.
- Conduct hearings and undertake inquiries.
- Make recommendations to state agencies about data collection practices or their scope.
- Review all certificates of compliance (a legal document filed by the state to the CPC that verifies that Massachusetts is achieving its climate targets).
- Meet at least annually with the advisory council.
- Gather, store, and disseminate data and analysis for the public and policymakers.
The CPC’s primary funding source is based off the funds collected from any carbon pricing program in Massachusetts. This includes the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI), if it is implemented in Massachusetts. However, the CPC is limited to using less than 2% of these programs’ total revenue (which is not allowed to exceed $5 million) and may gather funds from other sources, including those appropriated by the state legislature at a future date.
Part of the requirements for the CPC are that it must hold at least three public hearings — of which at least two must be in underserved communities — in geographically diverse locations, on each certificate of compliance, which verifies that Massachusetts is achieving its appropriate climate targets. In addition, the CPC is obligated to hold a public hearing within 60 days after the Department of Public Utilities issues any certificate of compliance.
The CPC must create reports at least twice a year on matters within its purview of the state’s progress towards emissions reductions objectives. The reports must be public and accessible through the CPC’s website. In addition, the CPC must report to the Governor, the Senate President, the House Speaker, the Senate and House Committees on Ways and Means, the Senate and House Committees on Global Warming and Climate Change, the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, and the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.
The legislation takes notable steps to empower the CPC, as well as ensure its status as an independent public entity (despite being a state agency), including:
- Mandating that commission members cannot work for the executive or legislative branches of state government.
- Selecting commission members “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of [their] qualifications and experience.”
- Allowing the CPC’s actions to take effect immediately.
- Collecting data, conducting analysis, and determining the substance of reports without requiring the approval of any executive agency.
- Removing the Executive Director from office, with cause.
- Developing and administering a budget without the approval of the executive branch.
- Examining, retatining, and publishing all documents and data produced, collected, or kept by any state agency – unless the state agency deems it not a public record
Additionally, the process for selecting members of the commission reduces the ability for the Governor to directly control its operations or the direction of its work. This is especially important if a Governor is elected that is less enthusiastic about achieving the state’s climate goals, because the makeup of the body prevents overt political manipulation of the CPC’s oversight function.
Guidance for the CPC
Despite the existence of multiple bodies similar to the CPC in other US states, the discourse and analysis on other subnational climate change councils, especially those of an independent and scientific nature, is quite limited. However, potential improvements and best practices for the CPC can be found by evaluating the findings of two research papers on national climate bodies: the Overview of National Climate Change Advisory Councils and The Role of Independent Bodies in Climate Governance: The UK’s Committee on Climate Change.
In terms of funding, the CPC’s budgetary independence is commendable, though not without concern. The CPC’s budget is not under the executive branch’s control, which is an improvement from the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that suffers from its budgetary reliance on a government it is tasked with scrutinizing. Nonetheless, the CPC’s dependence upon revenues from carbon pricing mechanisms is worrying, though funds can still be appropriated to it from the state. If the Transportation and Climate Initiative is not implemented, the CPC would be allotted less than $1 million annually, based on RGGI revenues from 2019 and the specifics of Section 2d. The importance of funding cannot be understated, in terms of source and quantity, as it is highly responsible for the CPC’s potential capabilities and potential outcomes.
With regards to the human organization of the CPC, there are some key aspects to be highlighted. The Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs is the Board’s only ex-officio member: it is only the position that is a part of the Board by virtue of holding another governmental office. Only one ex-officio member on the CPC helps ensure independence and transparency, “avoid conflicting interests and maintain integrity.” However, this may come at the cost of “losing [the] ability to influence policy directly”, since members do not hold public offices that have the power to do more. The lack of legislative influence in picking the Board further verifies the independence of the CPC, though it may award the executive branch with too much selection power – though this is not uncommon for a state agency.
The Executive Director, along with other members of the commission, must take the initiative to promote the work of the CPC in state discussions. By promoting its scientific work in legislative and executive debates, the CPC will be in a stronger position to guarantee that its issued recommendations are actually implemented. In addition, it remains to be seen how many personnel the CPC will ultimately consist of, though this will be constrained by the budget as well as the Board’s decision-making. In the case of the world-renowned CCC, a 30-member administration has undertaken the essential research and analysis groundwork, which is then reviewed accordingly by the appointed experts.
Some questions remain to be answered:
- How much work is to be expected by a Board that is not paid for its efforts?
- How separated is the CPC’s infrastructure (office location, for example) from other state agencies?
- How much influence will the advisory council have on the Board’s recommendations?
The particular operations of the CPC can be more effective by learning from the experiences outlined in the two reports. The most significant question is that of enforcement: in the UK, “there is no enforcement on whether [the CCC’s] advice is taken into account by the government.” As such, the CPC in Massachusetts can deploy more informal tools of enforcement in the situation that its recommendations are not followed, such as emphasizing the possibility of political embarrassment or judicial review. In addition, an amendment to require the government to respond to CPC reports (as with the CCC), combined with more explicit and assertive language and a greater focus on content messaging can facilitate implementation, and at the very least, monitoring and assessment. The CPC must take early steps to decide how it will measure its ability to make a difference in Massachusetts climate policy, while also staying aware of how delays in appointments and budget cuts may impact its operations.
Though the CPC has been given largely free reign in its reporting, it would be wise to include an adaptation focus, offer targeted consultancy to agencies and policymakers, and make the relevant data as accessible as possible. In the long term, the CPC should consider deepening and formalizing its networks with similar bodies across the country, such as the Implementation Emissions Market Advisory Committee in California.
The establishment of a climate policy commission in Massachusetts would give a valuable new tool for ensuring science, and not politics, guides the state’s climate policy decisions. If enacted, the CPC would play a central role in the state’s climate policy landscape, and help to aid its’ achievement of its long-term climate requirements. The particular details of the CPC’s organization, responsibilities, operations, and independence have been tested through a similar set-up in the healthcare industry. Although there is room for the Massachusetts House to improve upon its effectiveness, the CPC would help to ensure a stronger climate future, backed by scientific, robust and trustworthy policymaking, in Massachusetts.