Lessons from Massachusetts’ new climate law

Massachusetts, followed by its neighbor Rhode Island, is among the latest states to enact net-zero emissions legislation. The measure Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law in March puts the commonwealth on track to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Codifying this comprehensive climate bill into law comes at a critical moment, with federal agencies and Congress in the midst of shaping future U.S. climate policy. Massachusetts’ policy makers have some valuable lessons for Congress in the way they worked out an agreement on their plan.

Massachusetts’ long-debated new law includes a host of environmental, clean energy, and social goals as a part of a comprehensive decarbonization roadmap. These goals include committing to statewide net-zero emissions by 2050, reaching interim goals of at least 50 percent and 75 percent emissions reduction by 2030 and 2040 respectively, and establishing a clear definition of environmental justice (EJ) communities that are overburdened by pollution and disproportionately high climate-related risks.

To meet the state’s clean energy goals, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) had previously approved the power purchase agreements between Hydro-Québec and electric distribution companies. The deal calls for delivery of 9.45 million megawatt-hours (MWh) annually of clean, dispatchable hydropower, for 20 years. That’s equivalent to 17 percent of Massachusetts’ total load. The state has also updated its Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target Program to encourage the development of solar photovoltaic technology by supporting 3,200 MW of new solar generating capacity.

Another key pillar of the legislation mandates the additional procurement of 2,400 MW of offshore wind energy. That will increase Massachusetts’ planned offshore wind capacity  5,600 MW. It also increases the renewable portfolio standard by 3 percent annually from 2025 to 2029. This ensures that at least 40 percent of the state’s electricity would come from renewable energy sources by 2030.

The ambitious goals in Massachusetts’ climate roadmap make it a model for other states – or the federal government – to follow. As more states develop their decarbonization plans, here are a few lessons that we can learn from Massachusetts:

  • Climate change should not be a partisan issue.
    Cooperation between a Democratic-controlled legislature and a Republican governor was crucial. Both recognized the need to address the climate-related risks of their communities. While there were different rounds of debates and amendments, and back-and-forth between the legislature and the governor – especially during the last six months, they worked together to reach an agreement that can best serve the people in Massachusetts.
  • Environmental justice is essential for building a decarbonized future.
    Environmental justice policies have often been created on ad-hoc basis or by executive orders, making them subject to change with new administrations. Codifying environmental justice into law gives communities more assurance that their fight for environmental justice has paid off and any future administration will abide. The law also establishes a clear definition of what constitutes an EJ community, with criteria including race, income, and English-language proficiency. Moreover, it creates a new advisory council to work with state agencies to guarantee meaningful public participation in the decision-making process and remedy the legacy of how the state approves infrastructure and energy projects in EJ neighborhoods.
  • Reducing emissions should be a priority not just for utilities, but also for state regulators.
    Many utilities have committed to net-zero targets over the last few years. However, there are still more utilities that need to commit to emissions reduction targets. Increasing current renewable portfolio standards will help utilities reduce emissions by boosting demand for clean energy. The law also directs the Department of Public Utilities (DPU), which oversees electric and natural gas utilities, to add reducing emissions and equity to its priorities. Although DPU has an essential role to play for the state to meet its climate goals, its priorities were limited to safety, reliability, and affordability prior to this law.
  • Interim emission reduction goals are essential.
    While long-term goals are important to send clear signals of commitment to a decarbonized future, interim goals are essential to ensure that urgent action is underway. Massachusetts’ law authorizes the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) to establish emissions limits every five years for six “high-priority” sectors of the Massachusetts economy: electric power, transportation, commercial and industrial heating and cooling, residential heating and cooling, industrial processes, and natural gas distribution and service.
  • The most eco-friendly electricity is the electricity saved.
    To reduce air pollution and increase energy savings, Massachusetts will adopt California’s energy efficiency standards for household appliances. These new standards could result in avoiding 271 thousand tons of carbon dioxide emissions and increasing energy savings to $282 million by 2035 across the state.
  • Regional cooperation can maximize environmental benefits.
    Massachusetts is a member of the 11-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the Northeast’s regional cap-and-trade program for power generators. Between 2009 – 2018, RGGI states have seen cumulative lifetime benefits of $11.4 billion in energy bill savings and avoided 39.4 million tons of carbon dioxide.
  • Climate change is a global challenge that needs global solutions.
    Wildfires, extreme weather, coastal erosion, flooding, and other climate-change impacts affect different regions and countries worldwide with increasing frequency. That is why international cooperation is essential. Massachusetts’ partnership with Hydro- Québec to import clean, reliable hydropower shows how transboundary cooperation can help reduce emissions and create job opportunities.

As the United States reaches a crossroads to reestablish its position as a global leader in combating climate change, lessons from the Bay State can help the federal government and Congress find a way to put the nation on track to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals. Comprehensive federal climate legislation is essential to guarantee that recent executive actions by the Biden-Harris administration cannot be easily undone in the future. With the proposed American Jobs Plan, which includes major climate reform, there is a great chance for Congress to couple economic development with durable emission reductions and move us closer to a carbon-neutral future.