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State Official Says Mass. Climate Goals Remain On Schedule Despite Pandemic03:26
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Morning traffic heading north on I-93 in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Morning traffic heading north on I-93 in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The coronavirus pandemic has put all other issues on the back burner. But still heating up — at an increasing pace — is the existential threat of climate change. Will Massachusetts' ambitious climate goals survive the virus crisis?

In January, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the commonwealth was adopting an ambitious new climate plan. Massachusetts would not just reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 80% by mid-century, as state law required; instead, Baker committed to a goal of net zero emissions. He formalized that goal today, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

State Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Katie Theoharides says the administration is currently focused on the COVID-19 crisis, but the new climate ambitions will remain in place.

"That puts us really in a very small group of states and countries around the world who are chasing that goal that science says we have to do to avoid the worst impacts of climate change," Theoharides says. "And we expect to be on the same time schedule as we were planning."

Last week, the Baker administration announced it was doubling the state’s solar energy incentive program, expanding it to low-income residents, adding battery storage and limiting the use of forests and farms for solar arrays. And later this week the administration will release plans detailing how the state will make deep cuts in carbon emissions in other sectors of the economy.

Theoharides says that she's continued to hold virtual negotiations with officials in several states to put a regional price on carbon. The carbon-pricing pact, known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), aims to reduce emissions from cars and trucks.

"The investments we’re thinking about making in TCI reduce the impacts of climate change but also really improve the air from a public health standpoint," Theoharides says. She adds that TCI could raise billions of dollars to fund clean energy projects and jump start the economy.

"I think there’s a real role for stimulating the economy with things that also benefit the climate and protect our health," she says.

But critics of TCI say the pandemic shows you can’t have both economic stimulus and aggressive climate goals.

Paul Craney, spokesperson for the Boston-based advocacy group Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, says today's virus crisis is a vision of world with a price on transportation fossil fuels.

"What you’re seeing today — people are locked home, businesses are shut down —  you’ll see the CO2 emissions have been dramatically decreased," Craney says. "So what we’re living in right now is essentially the type of economy that you would need, and the individual restrictions our individual freedoms would need, in order to hit these climate goals."

But State Sen. Michael Barrett, a leading advocate for climate change action, disagrees.

"Not everything is discouraging despite the circumstances we face," he says.

Barrett, who oversees the joint committee overseeing energy, calls the COVID-19 crisis "a lesson."

"All of us are learning that existential threats are real," he says. "When we get through this — this near-term existential threat — and we turn to the other existential threat in our lives, I think we’ll do so as changed human beings. I don’t think any of us are going to look at climate the same way again."

This segment aired on April 22, 2020.

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Bruce Gellerman Twitter Senior Reporter
Bruce Gellerman is an award-winning journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.

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