Environment Massachusetts honors Pittsfield for microgrid exploration (copy)

Environment Massachusetts state Director Ben Hellerstein, shown during a 2019 visit to Pittsfield, says that while a recently signed bill sets a target for Massachusetts to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the state still needs to pass “action” bills that will move the economy away from fossil fuels.

The Massachusetts climate plan that became law in March, climate advocates say, was a step in the right direction.

That bill set a target for the state to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. While setting the target was a positive development, climate leaders say, the state also needs to take the necessary actions to meet it.

“The centerpiece of that bill was setting goals and directing the administration to come up with a plan to meet those goals,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts. “In my view, goals are good and plans are good. But, goals and plans are not sufficient. We need action, too.”

The road map bill directs the governor’s office to set interim emissions limits for every five-year increment through 2050. It requires the 2030 limit to be at least 50 percent below 1990 levels, the 2040 limit to be at least 75 percent below 1990 levels and the 2050 limit to be at least 85 percent below 1990 levels. Beyond those requirements, control over the five-year plans falls entirely to Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides, in the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker.

“While the road map bill set up a bunch of emissions targets for the state to reach, it leaves it pretty open how we’re going to get there,” said Jacob Stern, deputy director of Sierra Club Massachusetts. “It basically leaves it nearly entirely up to the governor to figure out what happens in between.”

Climate groups had backed a different bill in the previous two-year session. Their bill, which would have set in motion a transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, sought to tackle head-on the fossil fuel dependence that supporters say lies at the root of climate change.

After that bill, which was co-sponsored by a majority of House and Senate members, did not make it to the floor for a vote, advocates are once again looking to pass laws this session to move Massachusetts further toward clean and renewable energy.

The 100 Percent Clean Act would set the state on a path for 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 through requirements it would set for both investor-owned and municipal utilities.

It also would place a focus on less-scrutinized emissions from buildings and transportation. To achieve 100 percent clean heating by 2045, it would require new houses and small commercial buildings to use clean heating by 2025 and would apply that requirement to all new buildings after 2030. And to reach 100 percent clean transportation by 2045, transit authorities would have to transition to zero-emission buses, and only zero-emission cars would be sold in the state after 2035.

Although some observers, including the Baker administration, have expressed concerns that specific requirements or restrictions could inhibit economic activity, climate groups see a clean energy transition as an economic opportunity rather than an impediment.

“We certainly don’t want to put burdens on folks who have been historically environmentally burdened or economically burdened,” Stern said. “But, we know that if we’re really going to address the root of the climate crisis, we can’t continue business as usual.”

Supporters say the new bill includes strengthened language around ensuring that a transition includes protections for workers who might be affected. The bill also would create two new offices in state government: a Just Transition Office and a Clean Energy Equity Office, which would work to ensure that clean energy incentive programs benefit environmental justice communities.

“This is a transition that will happen and needs to happen,” Hellerstein said. “It can’t be a question of delay. We certainly should be looking at how we’re going to make sure that everyone has a way to support themselves and support their families, but that can’t be at odds with having a safe environment.”

Retrofitting buildings, Stern said, is one component of the transition that could benefit workers. One bill would create a “Building Justice with Jobs” task force that, in an effort to bolster the workforce while eliminating housing-related emissions by 2050, would retrofit 1 million homes in 10 years, and establish a program to train new workers for housing audits and renovations. The bill also would set up incentives for low-income and environmental justice communities to benefit from retrofitting.

Waiting longer to ramp up the transition, Hellerstein argued, merely would increase future costs, those related to health impacts and replacing fossil fuel infrastructure.

There is some evidence that Massachusetts residents support an accelerated transition. In a September 2020 poll commissioned by the Barr Foundation, 65 percent of respondents said they would support a goal for Massachusetts to receive 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. The same percentage of respondents said they would favor a move away from natural gas for heating and electricity.

Obstacles to legislation

Some groups have, in recent years, taken aim at the Massachusetts legislative process. The secrecy of legislative committees prevents advocates and other constituents from seeing how individual lawmakers are voting, critics say, and the quick turnaround between the release of a bill and a vote inhibits greater citizen engagement with the legislative process.

In a 2019 push for transparency, the Sierra Club joined calls for a set of rules changes. A coalition backed similar changes this year, and that coalition included the climate groups Sunrise Boston and Our Climate.

Much of climate legislation stalls in committees, where votes often are kept out of the public eye. Among 245 climate bills proposed from 2013 to 2018, only 43 made it out of committees for a vote on the floor, according to a January report from Brown University researchers, “Who’s Delaying Climate Action in Massachusetts? Twelve Findings.”

The process leaves “little opportunity for the public to hold legislators accountable for voting against climate action,” report authors Galen Hall and Trevor Culhane wrote.

The report also raised concerns with lobbying against legislation by utilities, real estate, fossil fuel and power-generation groups. While around 90 percent of public testimony on climate bills is favorable, opponents of climate legislation outspend climate advocates by a ratio of 3.5 to 1, Hall and Culhane found.

Eversource, the largest utility provider in New England, helped form the 15-member Consortium to Combat Electrification, which seeks to “create effective, customizable marketing materials to fight the electrification/anti-natural gas movement.”

Until Massachusetts takes action to “sharply improve transparency” and “rein in the utilities,” recommendations that Hall and Culhane suggest, climate advocates likely will face an uphill battle to pass their preferred legislation.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

Statehouse reporter

Danny Jin is the Eagle's Statehouse reporter. A graduate of Williams College, he previously interned at The Eagle and The Christian Science Monitor.