Understanding the New Massachusetts Climate Law

Photo Illustration by Amanda (Griffiths), Climate XChange. Massachusetts map modified from a photo by Stuart Rankin on Flickr.

After a year-long legislative push, a sweeping update to Massachusetts climate policy is now law. In short, the new law sets higher statewide goals to cut emissions, while creating opportunities for the state to better prioritize environmental justice, nudge utilities towards renewable energy, and make it easier for consumers to be more energy efficient, among other things. 

Below we breakdown the key takeaways from the 114 sections that make up “An Act Creating a Next Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy“, dive into how Massachusetts policymakers got it done, and a look at what comes next for climate policy in the state. 

Summary of the New Law

Updates the state’s climate change goals

The primary component of the new law is an update to Massachusetts’ climate goals, centered around achieving net zero emissions by 2050. It’s important to note that this is not the same as zero emissions or negative emissions, rather this goal allows for some fossil fuel emissions as long as they are balanced with methods that remove carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the atmosphere (e.g. carbon sequestration). Prior to this law the administration did have a 2050 net zero goal, although it was not legally binding and could have (hypothetically) been dropped by a future administration. 

Beyond just the 2050 target, the law also institutes interim emissions reductions goals every five years in order to make it easier to reach net zero by 2050. Known as ‘emissions limits’, it stipulates that these five year goals must be coordinated so as to achieve emissions reductions of 50% by 2030 and 75% by 2040 (all reductions are based on 1990 carbon emission levels). 

Notably, the law also requires ‘sublimits’ — sub-goals for emissions reductions in six high priority sectors of the economy, which must take into account overall statewide emissions goals. These sectors include: 1. electric power, 2. transportation, 3. commercial and industrial heating and cooling, 4. residential heating and cooling, 5. industrial processes, and 6. natural gas distribution and service. Unlike other targets, these sublimits are not automatically legally binding, and would only become so if Massachusetts fails to meet its overall limits during a given five year period. 

Beyond just setting goals and limits, the law requires a public planning process by the Governor’s office for how each emissions limit and sublimit will be achieved, and whether past limits have been met. Known as ‘roadmaps’, lawmakers hope they will make climate policy in the state more transparent, and keep the Governor more accountable going forward. The new law also makes clear that the Governor has the power to establish a carbon pollution price (i.e. a carbon fee) on any sector of the economy in order to achieve emissions limits, although the law does not require carbon pricing. Massachusetts currently prices carbon in the electric power sector (through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) and plans to begin pricing it for the transportation sector (through the Transportation and Climate Initiative), but has no current plans for a carbon price in the heating or industrial sectors [see: ‘Green Future Act’ in the ‘What’s Next For Climate Policy’ section below]. 

Another update to climate policy is the creation of technology adoption benchmarks, which are goals for adopting certain emissions reducing technology in the state. The law requires the creation of benchmarks for the adoption of electric vehicles and charging stations, solar technology, offshore wind, carbon sequestration, energy storage, anaerobic digestion, and heat pumps, while leaving the possibility  to create goals for other technologies too. 

A final update ensures that municipally-owned utilities (known as municipal light plants, or MLPs) reduce their emissions. The law now requires MLPs to source 50% of their electricity from “non-carbon emitting” sources (mostly renewables) by 2030, and reach net zero emissions by 2050. The 50 cities and towns in Massachusetts that are part of an MLP — making up just over 13% of the state’s electric production — were previously exempt from the state’s emissions reduction goals. 

As with the state’s existing goals, these updates are legally binding, meaning the Governor’s administration would be subject to legal challenges in state court if it fails to meet any of them (like one in 2016). 

Codifies environmental justice 

The new law ‘codifies’ environmental justice (EJ) with a legal definition on the books for the first time in the state. Prior to the new law, all environmental justice policy was only ever established by the Governor via executive orders, which opened the possibility for a future Governor to weaken the environmental justice processes in the state. The law now ensures that EJ communities are designated using criteria based on income, race, and english-language proficiency. According to Miriam Wasser at Earthwhile, the codified definition “reduces the overall number of census blocks in the state classified as EJ neighborhoods and allows the state to put more focus on, and resources towards, overburdened communities.”

The law also changes how state agencies are allowed to determine the environmental impacts of a construction project, resulting in better consideration of the needs of EJ populations. This is important because agencies are called on to determine if a project is damaging to the local environment (e.g. MEPA reviews), but too often answer this question narrowly without consideration to EJ populations. The state must now take a broader view of what counts as an environmental burden to a community, including looking at how this and other past projects contribute to existing pollution. This change in focus will likely have the most impact in communities of color, which have historically seen a disproportionate amount of fossil fuel infrastructure built in or around their neighborhoods (e.g. East Boston substation, Springfield biomass plant, Weymouth compressor station).

There are other important EJ provisions that made it into the law too, including a new environmental justice advisory council made up of residents of EJ communities. Further, it aims to increase fairer public participation processes by offering things like translation services and ensuring meetings are held in accessible locations near public transportation. 

Establishes a net zero stretch energy code

The law sets in motion a process that will culminate in Massachusetts adopting new statewide building codes. The goal is to update the state’s existing ‘stretch building codes’ to allow municipalities to decide if they want to require new buildings to be constructed to have net zero emissions. A stretch code is a set of additional energy efficiency standards that cities and towns in Massachusetts can choose to opt-in to, which require certain new and existing buildings constructed in that community to meet these higher standards. 

Some methods by which a building can achieve net zero include reducing heating or cooling loss (i.e. think LEED certified buildings), installing heat pumps, and offsetting any fossil fuel use with rooftop solar. Another option is to eliminate fossil fuel use altogether, but as Miriam Wasser reports, it does not appear likely that the new stretch codes will allow a city or town to outright ban natural gas use in buildings (Brookline attempted this in 2020). 

It’s still not clear which of these methods will be allowed under the new stretch buildings codes, and the law doesn’t define all the aspects of what would count as a net zero building or what new standards buildings would have to meet. This will be determined over the coming year by the administration, through a process that’s supposed to include public input. 

Nudges electricity generation towards clean energy

The law updates existing requirements for the state’s investor owned utilities (IOUs), including Eversource and National Grid, nudging them towards purchasing more renewable energy. 

One way it does this is by increasing an existing requirement that IOUs procure electricity from offshore wind. Before the new law, these big utilities were required to buy 3,200 megawatts of wind power. Now they must secure a total of 5,600 megawatts of offshore wind. Utilities procure this energy through a highly regulated bidding process, during which they enter into agreements with companies that build and operate the wind turbines. 

Since 2003, utilities have been required to purchase a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable energy sources (like solar and wind), known as the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS), which increases gradually every year. IOUs were on track to have an RPS of 35% by 2030, but the new law accelerates the annual increases, requiring them to meet a higher RPS of 40% by 2030. 

The new law also encourages utilities to adopt and experiment with innovative new clean energy technologies — like geothermal heat pumps, hydrogen, or other yet-undiscovered-solutions that reduce emissions — by reducing regulatory barriers on utilities that establish pilot programs for these technologies. Overall, policymakers hope this will incentivize utilities to shift away from natural gas, which remains a major part of their business in the state. 

New guidance for public utility regulator 

The law also incorporates a number of fundamental changes to the Department of Public Utilities (DPU), the primary state agency responsible for regulating investor-owned utilities (IOUs). Specifically, when making decisions, the DPU will now be legally required to consider how a project or decision will reduce emissions, in addition to how it will promote equity. Previously, the DPU was only required to take into account safety, energy reliability, and affordability for consumers. This is an important shift since DPU decisions have a big impact on natural gas use and renewable electricity distribution.

Shifts energy efficiency standards and goals

The law includes a number of provisions meant to reduce energy waste in homes and businesses, most notably an upgrade to appliance efficiency standards, bringing them more in line with where the industry and consumers are now. It won’t impact existing appliances, but will make new appliances bought in the future use less energy and be cheaper in the long-run. As Miriam Wasser reports, “according to a study from the nonprofit Environment Massachusetts, these new standards will save Massachusetts residents $282 million in electricity bills a year by 2035.”

It also shifts the mandate for MassSave, the state’s popular energy efficiency program, to also focus on reducing emissions. This will allow MassSave incentives, including rebates, to go towards helping pay for appliances and products that will save money for consumers and have a lower carbon footprint.

Other Provisions 

Other minor but important changes that the state law includes: 

  • Adding new seats to the Board of Building Regulations and Standards, which oversees regular building code updates. 
  • Forcing the administration to prioritize low-income communities in SMART, the state’s primary solar incentive program.
  • Changings the tax status of clean energy projects, the culmination of a much awaited compromise between local tax assessors and renewable developers.
  • Redirecting $12 million in new annual funding to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) for clean energy workforce development for minority- and women-owned small businesses, as well as environmental justice communities and fossil fuel workers.
  • Creating incentives to hydrogen energy and fuel cell technology.

[Interested in reading the full new law? You can find the full text, as signed by the Governor on March 26th, here.]

Political Background

Origins of the bill

The new climate law is the most sweeping update to the state’s first major emissions reduction law, the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), since its passage in 2008. With grassroots pressure mounting and climate change impacts accelerating, legislators entered the 2019-2020 legislative session under pressure to pass some update to the state’s core climate policy.

In January 2020, the Senate advanced three bills known as the Next Generation Climate package. The final bill, negotiated by Senator Barrett and featuring input from a number of other Senators, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and included provisions like an economy-wide price on carbon, net zero by 2050, and a new climate policy oversight agency (among many others).

In the House, a net zero by 2050 bill known as the Roadmap Bill was filed by Rep. Meschino and  was passed in July of 2020. It was modified to include a number of provisions advanced by individual lawmakers, like an environmental justice definition, appliance standards, an RPS increase, and more. Similar to the Senate, the House climate bill attracted overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle, easily having enough supporters to form a veto-proof majority. 

Negotiations between the House & Senate

After passing a bill in both chambers, a conference committee of six legislators, led by Senator Barrett and Representative Golden, started meeting (remotely) to negotiate a final bill. Despite both having elements like a net zero by 2050 requirement, the Senate and House versions were very different. The Senate version focused heavily on heating and transportation (two of the most difficult sectors to cut emissions in), while the House bill focused largely on the electric sector, and included provisions related to environmental justice not found in the Senate version. 

Negotiations were made more difficult because of the pandemic. Lawmakers and advocates were not able to meet in person, the state budget was a mess, and legislative staff were swamped with constituent requests as job losses reached historic proportions. The two-year legislative session, which should have ended in July 2020 was extended almost indefinitely, allowing more time for the conference committee negotiations. 

Conference committee negotiations lasted almost six months, an unusually long time, with a final bill emerging in late December 2020 at the twilight of the two-year session. The final compromise bill (i.e. the Next Generation roadmap bill) did a lot to split the difference between the two versions, and was a win for both chambers and their respective leadership. It, like the bills passed in each chamber, passed with overwhelming support from Democrat and Republican legislators and a deep veto-proof majority. It was then sent to the Governor.

Battle with the Governor

After waiting the maximum time of ten days, Governor Baker vetoed the climate bill. His reasoning (which he spelled out in a tense letter to the legislature): he thought the economy-wide emissions limits (especially the 2030 one) was too ambitious, didn’t support sector sublimits, and was opposed to the net zero stretch building code updates. Baker was under pressure from NAIOP and other real estate developers, who thought better stretch codes would hurt development in the state. 

Legislators responded, including new House Speaker Mariano, by pledging to re-file the bill and continue working on it in the beginning of the new session (unusual this early in a new session). Despite having the votes to override the Governor’s veto, because the climate bill passed at the very end of the legislative session it had to be refiled, this time in the 2021–2022 session. So lawmakers refiled the same bill, and passed it again with overwhelming support. 

Again, the Governor vetoed it, except this time, having few options to bypass the legislature, he instead changed his tone and offered to negotiate final bill language that he could support. Lawmakers agreed, instead of overriding the latest veto outright, they would work to incorporate some changes pushed by the Governor into a final bill. 

After about a month of negotiations between the House, Senate, and Governor, lawmakers released their final version of the bill, again passing it with veto-proof majorities. Ultimately, Baker was unsuccessful in changing the emissions limit timeline for 2030 and largely had to side with lawmakers on the stretch code, but did get a compromise on the implementation of sector sublimits and some minor technical changes included in the final draft.

With no real options left to stop the bill, and lawmakers signalling they would use their majorities to override yet another veto, Governor Baker agreed to sign the bill flanked by legislative leaders at the end of March. 

What’s Next for Climate Policy

With the final bill now law, attention turns to its implementation and Massachusetts’ other climate policy needs.  

Implementation of the law

Despite the back and forth over the final details of the bill, making it into law was really only half the battle. Now, its various parts must be implemented by the Governor, so the goals intended by the authors can be realized. As with all legislation, this new law leaves a number of big and small decisions up to the Governor. Over the coming years and decades, Governor Baker and his successors will heavily influence how it’s implemented, which includes: setting the new climate goals, drafting plans, making appointments, holding administration officials accountable to what the law dictates, seeking necessary funding, establishing new regulations, and updating components of the law, among others.

Upcoming deadlines that the Governor’s administration must now meet include:

  • Beginning in June 2021, the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) must begin to consider emissions reductions in its decision-making process. The DPU oversees gas and electric utilities in the state, like Eversource and National Grid.
  • Starting in July 2021, the Governor will have three new vacancies to fill on the Board of Building Regulation and Standards (BBRS) with green building experts. The BBRS is partially responsible for establishing and enforcing the new law’s option net zero stretch building code.
  • By July 2021, the Governor’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs has to begin setting emissions reduction goals for MassSave, which previously focused only on energy efficiency.
  • By the end of 2021, and every year after, the DPU must transfer $12 million in new funds to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), for a workforce training program focused on clean energy.
  • No later than the beginning of July 2022, the administration must set new emissions limits and sub-limits for 2025. This will also include a roadmap plan that outlines how the state will achieve these reductions. This process will repeat every five years until the state hits net zero emissions in 2050.
  • By December 2022, the administration must finish writing and promulgating (i.e. make official regulations for) the new net zero stretch building codes, after which communities can begin opt-ing in to them.

In the last week, Senator Michael Barrett put out a warning to the Baker administration, cautioning against improper implementation of any parts of the new law. In an email, Senator Barrett said, “I hope the Governor is not toying with the idea of slow-walking implementation of the bill.” He went on to say, “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Governor’s people drag their feet on the regulation-writing process that must come next.” As Senate co-chair of the joint energy committee, Senator Barrett will play a primary role in oversight of the new law’s implementation. 

Another factor that will impact the implementation of the new law is who is in the corner office. Governor Baker’s second term ends in early January 2023, and it remains to be seen if he will seek a third term as Governor in an election slated for November 2022. If he doesn’t (or doesn’t win reelection) his replacement will have the power to shape how effective of an emissions-reducing policy this new law will be for Massachusetts. [Keep up to date on the implementation of the climate law by subscribing to Climate XChange’s weekly Massachusetts policy newsletter here].

Unfinished business

No single policy is a silver bullet when it comes to the issue of climate change, and in Massachusetts there are still multiple legislative efforts that need to pass in order for the state to meet the emissions limits set in the new climate law and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

These include efforts to accelerate the decarbonization of the electric grid, exemplified in bills focused on further expanding offshore wind development in the state and achieving 100% renewable (aka. the 100% Clean Act). The state also needs to do more on environmental justice, with multiple legislative efforts filed this session to expand legal rights for EJ populations and stop dangerous infrastructure in EJ neighborhoods. 

By far one of the most important focuses will be on funding green infrastructure that reduces emissions and allows Massachusetts to achieve its emissions targets. Although it seems likely that some money for infrastructure will come from the Biden administration, it probably won’t be enough. Other bills seek to make up the difference, including a bill filed by Senator Barrett that closes the state’s pollution loophole by 2028, and opens the door for revenue raised from an economy-wide carbon price to be spent on a mixture of consumer rebates and investments. 

Another being the Green Future Act, which raises $10 billion by 2030, spending money on state-wide infrastructure, direct aid to municipalities, and dedicated funding to environmental justice populations. [Learn more about the Green Future Act, and its supporters here].

Featured Image: Photo Illustration by Amanda Griffiths, Climate XChange. Massachusetts map modified from a photo by Stuart Rankin on Flickr.