Decarbonizing the Massachusetts economy is no easy task. It involves dozens of programs, policies and other moving parts that must be deployed simultaneously.
As mandated in the state's 2021 climate law, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has spent the last year crunching numbers and looking at best practices to come up with a plan to cut emissions.
It recently published a report about how the state can reach its goals for 2025 and 2030. The "Clean Energy and Climate Plan" outlines statewide targets as well as specific targets for five sectors: transportation, buildings, electricity, natural lands and a catch-all category that includes industrial activities and leaking natural gas pipelines.
Here are the highlights:
The state’s goal is to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. And using 1990 emissions levels as a baseline, the new climate plan sets reduction targets of 33% by 2025 and 50% by 2030.
For context, in 2020, state emissions were down 31.4% from 1990 levels. However, the pandemic halted much of the region's economy, so that figure may not be the best indicator of the state’s trajectory.
Transportation accounts for 37% of greenhouse gases in the state, making it the single largest source of emissions — not to mention the other impacts gasoline-powered vehicles have on air quality.
The plan calls for the state to reduce transportation-related emissions 18% by 2025 and 34% by 2030. To meet these goals, Massachusetts will have to replace gasoline and diesel-power vehicles with electric ones and reduce the overall number of miles residents drive annually.
By 2025, the state says we need 200,000 electric vehicles [EVs] on the road and 15,000 public charging stations. By 2030, Massachusetts needs 900,000 EVs on the road and 75,000 public charging stations. With just over 51,000 EVs on the road, we have a long way to go.
The state proposes offering rebates at the point of sale and creating programs to help lower-income residents buy new and used electric cars. The plan also calls for building fast-chargers throughout the state and making them easy to use for people who don’t have driveways.
Beyond personal passenger vehicles, the state said it will prioritize electrifying public buses and school buses, especially ones that operate in environmental justice neighborhoods.
According to the state, the number of miles Massachusetts residents put on their cars annually has increased from 48.9 billion in 1990 to 61.1 billion in 2019. (2020 was a different story, thanks to the pandemic.)
Reversing this trend will require providing reliable and safe alternatives to travel by car, such as boosting public transit options, more walkable and bikeable streets, and more e-bikes. It will also require municipalities to build more housing near public transportation, which could require updates to zoning laws.
Heating buildings with gas and oil accounts for about 30% of statewide emissions, and to meet the goals laid out in the plan — 28% below 1990 levels by 2025 and 47% by 2030 — the state laid out two strategies: improving the energy efficiency of buildings and replacing fossil fuel heating systems with electric heat pumps.
The plan says Massachusetts residents need to retrofit about 10% of all homes by 2025, a process that involves better insulation, sealing off air leaks, replacing windows and installing electric heating and cooling systems. To help homeowners afford these upgrades, the state proposed expanding Mass Save’s incentive programs and creating new programs to help lower-income residents.
The state plan calls for the "widespread deployment" of heat pumps to warm and cool buildings. Though it stops short of setting a target for the number of units it hopes to install, a draft of its "Clean Energy and Climate Plan" released earlier this year suggested we'd need hundreds of thousands of units installed by the end of the decade.
Ramping up won't be easy, and the new plan outlined several possible programs and regulations that could help. These include:
- Launching a public awareness campaign to teach residents about heat pumps, retrofits and available incentives or financing programs
- Exploring new financing options to help people afford the switch and related electrical or duct work
- Creating regulations that help utilities get on board with these changes
- Supporting technological innovation and job training programs. Right now, one of the hardest parts about switching to a heat pump is finding installers
- Establishing building performance standards that would gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, similar to what Boston did for large buildings last year
- Finalizing an optional green building code for construction that cities and towns can adopt; for more on that, read our explainer
According to the climate and energy plan, the state-appointed Commission on Clean Heat is evaluating these options. Once it issues a final report later this year, we should have more clarity about what the state can — and probably should — do.
Greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power system comprise another 20% of total emissions in Massachusetts. And using 1990 emissions levels as a baseline, the plan says the state must reduce emissions 53% by 2025 and 70% by 2030.
The good news is the state has already made a lot of progress in this sector; Massachusetts has halved emissions since 1990 thanks in large part to coal and oil-fired plants that have closed and energy efficiency programs. But there’s a lot left to do to meet our goals, namely:
- Decarbonize the grid, i.e., getting electricity from renewables instead of natural gas and oil-fired power plants
- Increasing the amount of electricity we produce or procure to meet future demand. (The power for all those heat pumps and EVs has to come from somewhere!)
To achieve both of these things, the state recommends continuing to contract for more offshore wind power, putting up more solar panels and importing more hydroelectric power from Canada.
But just generating the power isn’t enough. The electricity needs to get to where people use it. And that will require building new transmission and distribution lines, something that is never easy, and usually quite fraught, in New England. To give one example, a proposed transmission line through Maine that would allow Massachusetts to import hydroelectric power from Quebec was rejected by Maine voters and is currently tied up in courts.
Other programs and policies currently in place, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and in-state requirements that investor-owned and municipal utilities purchase ever-increasing amounts of renewable energy, will help too.
Industrial sources, gas pipelines, solid waste and other non-energy sources
When it comes to reducing planet-warming emissions, those created by this sort of catch-all sector might not always be top of mind. But they’re important and currently comprise about 10% of statewide emissions.
Using 1990 emissions levels as a baseline, the new plan sets a target of a 34% reduction by 2025 and 48% by 2030. It also offers more specific goals for certain sub-sectors.
To achieve these goals, the report says the state needs to do several thing:
- Tighten regulations around hydrofluorocarbon gasses, which are used in many cooling processes. New federal standards for HFCs should go a long way toward helping the state reduce these emissions, the plan says.
- “Explore additional ways to reduce” methane leaks in natural gas infrastructure. The report doesn’t spell out many specifics here, noting that the ongoing work at the Department of Public Utilities on the Future of Natural Gas will provide recommendations.
- Set tighter emission standards for solid waste incinerators while also working to reduce the amount of garbage created in the state.
Natural and working lands
With a 2050 mandate to achieve net-zero emissions, the state needs to trap carbon dioxide from the air and store it somewhere. With no commercially viable technology available to do this, the works falls on mother nature.
Natural and working lands refers to farm and ranch lands, forests, grasslands, freshwater and riparian systems, wetlands, coastal and estuarine areas, watersheds, parks, urban and community forests, trails and other open spaces.
Though natural lands have been a net carbon sink, the plan calls for further reducing emissions from the 1990 base level — 19% by 2025 and 25% by 2030.
To this end, the state plans to:
- Permanently conserve 63,400 more acres of undeveloped land and water in the state by 2025, and 167,000 acres by 2030. (Currently, 1.4 million acres has permanent protection.)
- Help farmers manage their soil so it traps more carbon in the land.
- Find ways to incentivize private landowners to adopt “climate smart management practices,” which could include preserving forested land and promoting sustainable timber harvests.
- Plant at least 5,000 acres of new trees by 2025 and 16,000 acres by 2030, with an emphasis on urban areas and land near rivers, lakes and other water bodies.
- Make it easier for wetland restoration projects to get permitted.
Other big takeaways
Emphasis on equity and environmental justice
The report devoted an entire chapter to equity and environmental justice, noting that every action the state takes should center these concerns.
For example, as the state builds out new electrical infrastructure, it must prevent lower income neighborhoods and communities of color from bearing a disproportionate burden. At the same time, it must make sure these communities benefit from the energy transition with better air quality and more green spaces, new avenues for accessing clean transportation and heat, as well as economic development opportunities.
Emphasis on individual actions
As stated in the report, “the collective choices that residents make about their next vehicles and heating systems will significantly impact the Commonwealth’s ability to achieve the 2025 and 2030 emissions limits and sub-limits.”
In other words, the state can only do so much through policies and investments, and it must design incentives and programs to convince more people to swap out fossil fuel-powered vehicles and heating systems for electric ones.
Emphasis on collaboration
Many of the necessary changes require local permits or even zoning changes, so working with communities to build support for new clean energy infrastructure, transmission lines and housing will be crucial. So will collaboration with the other New England states and the federal government on developing clean energy policy and projects.
What will this cost?
The state stops short from giving an overall price tag to the policies outlined in the report, but it does estimate that meeting the 2025 and 2030 emissions targets could create 22,000 new good-paying jobs and save the average household $400 a year in utility bills.