Senate to vote on expediting carbon neutrality


The Massachusetts Senate is set to vote on a package of three climate bills Thursday. Photo credit: Cho Yin Rachel Lo

By Maxwell Carter

The Massachusetts Senate will vote on three bills Thursday that would set Massachusetts on a fast-track to carbon-neutrality by 2050 if passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.

If passed, the legislation will commit the state to carbon neutrality by 2050, require the MBTA to completely transform their fleet of buses to electric power by 2040, increase environmental regulations on appliances and light fixtures, and push the governor to set up a carbon-pricing system for industries and institutions exceeding carbon output limits.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee released a legislative package condensed from dozens of pending bills on Jan. 23. It consists of three bills that put into motion an incremental approach to the expansive effort that will demand action from every sector of the Commonwealth.

An Act Setting Next Generation Climate Policy is the main component of the package. The act accelerates the state’s current commitment of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 to full carbon neutrality by 2050.

“What the new science tells us is that 80 [percent] by 2050 is not going to cut it anymore,” Sen. Marc Pacheco, chair of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, said in a phone interview. “We really need to get to carbon neutrality by 2050…and try to prevent the worst cases of global climate change from coming to fruition.”

The bill was proposed in various forms in recent years by Sen. Mike Barrett, a Lexington Democrat serving as the vice-chair of the Senate Global Warming and Climate Change Committee, but is just now making any progress. Barrett’s approach this year struck a contentious carbon tax from previous versions of the legislation and put the carbon pricing decision on the governor by setting up the five-year carbon emission benchmarks.

Massachusetts has long been a leader on climate policy, but advocates, government officials, and legislators alike are calling for more ambitious strategies to address the growing climate crisis. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh in his state of the city address, as well as the newly elected city council, in a Jan. 17 resolution declared the growing crisis a priority this year. In his state of the commonwealth address on Jan. 21, Governor Charlie Baker indicated he will sign onto the legislative initiatives.

“We’re a national leader on climate policy, but we have to take more decisive action,” the governor said to massive applause.

The governor has had the power to implement carbon-pricing for years and the interim targets will pressure him to take necessary action, Pacheco told The Beacon. It remains to be seen what, if any, measures Baker would implement, however.

“It’s going to be important that in the final bill we have something that can be monitored because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to ensure that the outcome we seek will actually happen,” Pacheco said.

An Act to Accelerate the Transition of Cars, Trucks, and Buses to Carbon-Free Power aims to prepare the transportation sector for electrification by 2040. The bill would require the MBTA to replace its fleet of vehicles by barring the state from purchasing carbon-emitting vehicles at the beginning of 2030. The other major component of the legislation would encourage individuals to make the transition by expanding infrastructure for electric cars. It would also require parking lots to designate five percent of spots exclusively to electric vehicles, or at least one spot in garages with less than a 50-car capacity.

Finally, An Act Relative to Energy Savings Efficiency focuses on increasing the efficiency of fixtures and appliances. The bill would define terms as specific as hand-held shower heads, water closets, and trough type urinals in order to make their regulation easier. The legislation would then set specific efficiency standards and implement a ban on the sale of appliances in the Commonwealth that don’t meet the minimum requirements.

Environmental advocates from The Sierra Club and The Audubon Society have expressed support for the legislature’s efforts, but said they still want to see more aggressive action from the state. Questions remain about whether the 2050 timeline will be enough to address fast-paced climate change, how rapidly Massachusetts can expand its alternative energy infrastructure, and why the Commonwealth isn’t making commitments that go beyond carbon-neutrality.

“Overall we do think this is a significant step in the right direction,” Massachusetts Chapter Sierra Club Deputy Director Jacob Stern said in an interview with The Beacon. “I just think we can go farther. A number of states have already done this 100 percent renewable commitment and I don’t understand why Massachusetts doesn’t want to do that.”

Emerson College has been committed to combating climate change since at least 2007 and is committed to carbon neutrality by 2030, according to the college’s sustainability website. In 2018 Emerson became one of the first higher-education institutions in the country to construct a LEED-certified building. In 2018, the school was also awarded gold status by The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Emerson’s Campus Sustainability Coordinator Catherine Liebowitz told The Beacon the college is hoping to bring the whole community into their sustainability efforts.

“We are at a place where we have done what I call the low-hanging fruit or the invisible things… that [the administration] can just do ourselves,” Liebowitz said in an interview with The Beacon. “The remaining chunk is going to require everyone to participate.”