Columnist Johanna Neumann: Gov. Baker must speed up action on clean energy 

  • Gov. Charlie Baker AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/13/2017 9:29:07 PM

In the wake of President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to join in the bipartisan climate alliance is a good step. (Editorial: “Right move by governor on climate alliance,” June 5).

Yet, given that it is now states, cities and industries which must stick to the U.S. commitment to reduce pollution to avert the worst impacts of climate change, it’s worth taking a look beyond the governor’s rhetoric and symbolic gestures and assessing what kind of action is coming out of his office.

When it comes to policies that reduce global-warming pollution, the environmental community lauded the governor when, last August, administration officials announced their support for doubling the strength of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). That is a program that limits carbon pollution from power plants and invests in clean energy and energy efficiency in Massachusetts and eight other Northeastern states. Unfortunately, when pressed by reporters now, Baker and administration officials only offer vague support but don’t put forward any specifics on how strong the program should be.

Doubling the strength of RGGI would demonstrate real leadership on climate. This action would reduce emissions by 5 percent per year, as opposed to 2.5 percent under the current program rules — enough to cut an additional 100 million metric tons of pollution by 2030. That’s the equivalent of making more than 1 million homes run entirely on solar power.

Unfortunately, the governor’s actions on RGGI follow a troubling pattern where strong rhetoric and promises on climate solutions and clean energy are followed by actions that fall far short.

Another example is the governor’s stance on solar. While Baker and his officials have issued statements expressing support for expanding access to solar energy for Massachusetts residents from all walks of life, they have also backed changes to an important solar program that will make it harder for many, including low-income families and renters, to switch to solar.

Baker’s lukewarm action to address the climate crisis is partly why Environment Massachusetts recently joined the Environmental League of Massachusetts and other organizations in giving the Baker administration a C+ for its record on energy issues.

The governor’s inaction on the RGGI in particular is hard to understand. In the decade since it was created, RGGI has brought major benefits to Massachusetts and other Northeastern states. Carbon pollution from power plants has declined by 61 percent in Massachusetts, and RGGI has emerged as the most successful regional climate program in the United States. In fact, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is a prime reason why it will be relatively painless for Massachusetts to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Limits on carbon pollution have also led to reductions in other forms of harmful pollution from power plants, including pollution that causes soot and smog. One study estimated that pollution reductions from RGGI have saved as many as 830 lives, prevented up to 9,900 asthma attacks, and helped avoid 39,000 to 47,000 missed days of work. At the same time, RGGI has generated more than $400 million in funding for clean energy and energy efficiency projects in Massachusetts through revenue from the sale of emissions allowances.

There’s no reason for the governor to stay on the sidelines on this issue. Baker and his aides should vocally support doubling the strength of RGGI. Since Massachusetts and other states participating in RGGI will make a key decision about the future of the program this month, there’s no time like the present for Baker to take a strong stand.

The governor should also take bigger steps to expand solar, offshore wind and energy efficiency, as well as emerging technologies such as electric vehicles and energy storage, while rejecting proposals to expand gas pipelines and deepen our dependence on fossil fuels.

Researchers from Stanford University, the University of Delaware, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and other major institutions have shown that a future powered entirely by renewable energy is within reach. Businesses such as Amazon and Johnson & Johnson, as well as cities from Atlanta to Burlington, Vermont, already have committed to a goal of 100 percent renewable energy.

The California Senate recently passed a bill for that massive state to get all its electricity from clean renewable sources. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Reps. Sean Garballey and Marjorie Decker have introduced legislation to transition the state’s entire economy to 100 percent clean renewable energy, which we hope will be scheduled for a hearing and passed soon by our Legislature. Gov. Baker should join this movement.

The truth is, when he pulled out of the Paris agreement, our president got it entirely backward: There is no sound economy in our future without a healthy planet. If our governor believes in providing a livable future for our children, he must make his mark to accelerate progress on clean energy and reduce the pollution that’s fueling global warming.

In the absence of leadership in Washington, Baker should commit Massachusetts to achieve 100 percent renewable energy and support the policies that will get us there.

Johanna Neumann is the development director for Environment Massachusetts, a citizen-based advocacy organization that works to protect air, water and open spaces. She lives in Amherst.

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