Charlie Baker could pocket-veto an urgent, pathbreaking climate bill passed by the Legislature. He shouldn't.
By The Boston Globe Editorial Board, Jan. 12, 2021
Massachusetts was once a leader among states when it came to fighting the climate crisis. And it's poised to become one again - if Governor Charlie Baker doesn't fall down on his duty by failing to sign the ambitious piece of legislation now on his desk.
That climate disasters are taking a profound economic and humanitarian toll around the world, nation, and the Commonwealth is not up for debate. Coastal storms are getting deadlier and more costly. Wildfires burn with greater intensity and frequency. Heat waves kill the young and elderly. In 2020, the nation had more than 20 climate and weather disasters, whose costs exceeded $1 billion, and extreme weather events have cost Massachusetts hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade.
The Legislature just passed a bill that meets this moment of crisis. Current law requires the Commonwealth to reduce its emissions by 80 percent by 2050; the new law would require that Massachusetts become a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 while reducing its emissions by at least 85 percent below 1990 levels, and to meet targets for emission cuts every five years for the next three decades. Net-zero means that the state would absorb - through forests, for example, or carbon-removal technology yet to be deployed - as much carbon as it emits each year.
The bill would ensure the state's utilities sign contracts for more offshore wind, and require that 40 percent of the electricity mix comes from renewable sources, including wind and solar, by 2030 - a significant ratcheting up of the state's renewable portfolio standard. The bill requires the state to cut emissions in a way that protects low- and moderate-income residents and communities of color deemed "environmental justice" populations. It would increase profits for businesses and commercial landlords who put up solar panels that contribute to the grid and, importantly, make it possible for cities and towns to adopt a net-zero building code.
The bill is not perfect. Its interim emissions target for 2030 is ambitious and could force the government and industry to do a full-court press - or scramble - to meet it. But that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, and could be remedied in follow-up legislation if it proves untenable. The bill also doesn't invest substantially in resilience for environmental justice communities, something the Baker administration has advocated, which should be a priority for follow-on bills. But none of these factors should be dealbreakers, especially since the substance of the bill largely resembles the administration's own climate plan for 2030 and decarbonization road
map for 2050.
"This bill comes at a crucial time and moves Massachusetts in exactly the right direction to address climate change," said Ann Berwick, the state's former undersecretary for energy and former chair of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. (Berwick is currently the codirector of sustainability for the City of Newton.)
"The Administration is carefully reviewing the bill," a spokesperson for the state's executive office for energy and environmental affairs told the Globe via e-mail, pointing to its newly released climate plans and the Transportation and Climate Initiative as its policy.
Charlie Baker is well aware of the dangers of climate change. In spearheading the multi-state TCI, which tackles emissions from vehicles, he set himself apart from Republicans around the nation who have denied the science of climate change. But more than half of Massachusetts' greenhouse gas emissions come from sectors other than transportation, and the success of electric vehicles as an alternative depends on stronger regulations in the electricity sector and investments in clean energy technology both of which are in the new climate bill. The scope of ambition of the proposed legislation, combined with its flexibility in how it's implemented, makes it a rare opportunity to take bold action on climate change that would prove how serious the governor's commitment really is while binding subsequent governors.
The federal government has been largely asleep at the wheel, having withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and insufficiently invested in cutting emissions, clean energy innovation, and climate resilience. For decades, it's been the states and cities that have led on climate change. Massachusetts has been part of that vanguard as a participant in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has been credited with slashing carbon emissions from the power sector while the participating states' economies grew faster than others around the nation. State-level innovation has shown that setting clear standards for polluting or energy-wasting industries can spur new technologies and ways of solving problems that then spill over to help with the global fight against climate change.
Acting swiftly is critical when it comes to the climate crisis, just as it is in a pandemic. The Massachusetts Legislature should not have waited until the 11th hour - the very end of its annual session - to finalize this climate bill in conference committee and bring it to a vote. But that doesn't negate its importance, nor does it relieve the governor of the responsibility to sign it into law. If Baker doesn't sign the bill by Thursday - in effect, exercising a pocket veto - it would needlessly delay the urgent life-saving and emissions-fighting measures in the bill from acquiring the force of law and make it more likely for the state to fall short of its targets over time. Whatever quibbles his administration may have with the details, the governor must know that the tide is rising in Massachusetts - both the seas and the political imperative to take action on climate change.