Columnist Johanna Neumann: Charting our path to 100% renewable 

  • Fishermen drift by the John E. Amos coal-fired power plant operating on the banks of the Kanawha River near Winfield, West Virginia, 2019. Carolyn Cole—Carolyn Cole/LA Times/TNS

Published: 7/15/2020 1:31:02 PM

In a time when Massachusetts faces new challenges presented by COVID 19, one big challenge hasn’t changed: Burning fossil fuels like oil and gas still pollutes our air and water, makes us sick, and warms our climate. Given what we know about the impacts of burning fossil fuels on our health and our environment, state lawmakers should commit to a goal of rapidly shifting the commonwealth away from fossil fuels.

Lawmakers are currently weighing two competing approaches to long-term clean energy and climate action: “100% renewable” and “net zero by 2050.”

What’s the difference?

The 100% Renewable Energy Act filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker and Rep. Sean Garballey commits Massachusetts to achieving 100% renewable energy. If passed, we would phase out fossil fuels for electricity production by 2035 and set a goal of powering all our heating and transportation needs with renewable energy by 2045.

A majority of legislators in both the House and Senate have endorsed the approach set out in the Decker/Garballey 100% Renewable Energy Act, along with more than 50 environmental and civic organizations, 150 city and town officials, and dozens of health professionals and clean energy industry leaders. Across America, 13 states and territories and around 170 cities and counties have already set 100% renewable or clean electricity goals and many of these jurisdictions are also looking at how to achieve 100% renewable energy for heating and transportation.

A competing approach sets a target of “net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.” While net zero may sound sensible, it falls short of what we need.

Massachusetts should not stay hooked on fossil fuels

Under a “net zero by 2050” scheme, fossil fuel-fired power plants, like the Mystic Generating Station in Everett, Massachusetts, could keep operating for the foreseeable future. Carbon accounting is tricky business, subject to manipulation. Fancy accounting schemes could open the door for communities that live near fossil fuel infrastructure to continue to suffer disproportionate health risks indefinitely.

A higher death rate from COVID-19 is not the only risk that people living near oil, coal or gas-burning facilities face. Particulate matter and smog-forming pollution from burning oil and gas is linked to a wide range of health problems, including asthma, heart attack, stroke and cancer. For pregnant women, exposure to air pollution is associated with a higher risk of low birth weight, preterm birth and stillbirth. Long-term exposure to particulate pollution is also associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

It’s no secret that communities of color are more likely than white people to live near these facilities. To ensure that all communities, including those that are predominantly Black and Latinx, have clean air to breathe, state lawmakers need to aim for a full transition off of fossil fuels.

Massachusetts needs clarity of intention

If lawmakers pass a “net zero” goal, they keep the door open indefinitely to new fossil fuel infrastructure and drag out the retirement of existing power plants and pipelines.

We face a public health crisis exacerbated by the burning fossil fuels and a climate crisis fueled by burning those same fuels. It’s absurd to perpetuate those crises when solutions abound. Renewable energy sources are as abundant as ever, and we are able to harness them and capture them more efficiently and cheaper than ever before.

It’s time to be clear about the future we envision: a future powered entirely by renewable energy from sources like the sun and the wind.

Massachusetts should be a leader

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that global carbon emissions need to reach net zero carbon by 2050 to have a good shot of limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The net zero proposal currently gaining traction on Beacon Hill has Massachusetts, a historic leadership state, reaching net zero by 2050.

That goal sells short Massachusetts clean energy legacy. Massachusetts was the first state in the country to limit carbon pollution from power plants in 2001. We have led the nation on energy efficiency, solar energy and reducing vehicle emissions.

Our state, with its historic legacy of leadership aiming for a global minimum of “net zero by 2050” would be like a champion Red Sox team aiming to win half their games. We must set our sights high. Massachusetts must adopt more ambitious goals and commit to eliminate fossil fuels sooner than 2050, to set an example for other states, and to account for the fact that other places won’t reduce emissions as quickly.

The Legislature wraps up on July 31. If you want Massachusetts to move toward 100% renewable energy, now is the time to act. Please contact your lawmakers and ask them to weigh in with Speaker DeLeo and Chair Golden. We need them to move the only bill that will break our fossil fuel dependency and advance a healthier, pollution-free future for all communities in Massachusetts: the Decker/Garballey 100% Renewable Energy Act.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at
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