Ben Downing: Tackling Climate Change

Jan 10, 2019

The news of nine Northeastern states and the District of Columbia coming together to address transportation climate impacts is good news. All the leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, including Governor Baker of Massachusetts deserve credit for taking the important first step of publically forming the alliance and committing to action.

The Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) is modeled on a similar effort to reduce emissions in the electric sector. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative or RGGI established a cap on sector emissions, then requiring market participants to purchase allowances for their carbon pollution. The proceeds from the allowances have helped states invest in energy efficiency, renewables, public transportation and more. The results have been a massive success. The region’s economy has grown, while emissions have dropped.

In Massachusetts, RGGI set the foundation for our efforts to tackle climate change, but it was far from the last or only step we took. RGGI was followed by the Green Communities Act and three updates to that framework over 6 years, the Global Warming Solutions Act, the Green Jobs Act, and any number of other regulatory and legislative efforts. Each built on the foundation and success of RGGI. Similarly, if TCI is to be successful and help Massachusetts and other states meet their climate requirements, it cannot be the last step policy makers take. TCI is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

For Massachusetts to do its part, we need to take a variety of steps that will reduce climate emissions caused by transportation. First, the state needs a sustainable, long term framework for investing in public transit and zero emission transportation options. TCI funds can and should help address the need, but it's unlikely they will meet it all. That means bringing the system we have into the 21st century and building it out for a sustainable future. For two decades we have failed to find the political solution to transportation funding. The failure is no longer simply a failure of political leadership, it is a matter of meeting the moral obligation of climate change. We - voters, elected officials, all of us - have accepted failure in the past. We cannot any longer.

Second, the state needs to reform is badly out of date zoning laws. More fossil fuel free transit options is a good start, but more places to live that can access the current and future system is just as key. Much like transportation funding, zoning reform has been an identified need for decades. Now we need the demands on climate realities to help break out of the current status quo.

Finally, the state’s electric grid will have to continue to modernize. If we are going to enable electric vehicles - personal cars, busses, commercial fleets - then our electric grid will need to be more robust & dynamic. The transportation sector cannot afford to pay exorbitant fees and deal with protracted delays as they seek to change how the grid works. Charging stations and other improvements should be planned for as a matter of course and expedited in the utility review and planning process.

More than a decade ago, there were questions about just how much could be gained through energy efficiency in Massachusetts. Doubters did not believe old coal and oil plants, let alone older gas plants, could become obsolete. Environmental advocates worried that some of the clean energy goals were too ambitious and would fail. Massachusetts experience with the electric sector has shown that tackling climate change is good for the economy and for the environment. It has also shown that efforts must be made on multiple levels - across states, statewide, locally and at the consumer level - the same will be true of transportation. Thanks to the leadership of these 10 governments, we have reason to be hopeful. If they continue on with more steps, we will have reason to be optimistic.

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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