State climate chief offers sweeping call for change

MELISSA HOFFER

MELISSA HOFFER

By SAM DRYSDALE

State House News Service

Published: 10-29-2023 7:17 PM

BOSTON — Massachusetts needs to shift from an era of statewide planning for climate policy to the key details of implementing it, according to a new report from the state’s top climate official, which includes sweeping recommendations to accelerate the state’s progress toward its emissions reduction goals.

Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer recommends some more drastic measures, such as having Massport look at limiting the amount of “short hop” flights in and out of Bay State airports to reduce aviation emissions, decarbonizing new public school construction, and developing a Climate Service Corps to prepare young people for jobs in clean energy and climate resilience.

One of the main pillars of Hoffer’s report, released Wednesday morning, is a call for an economic analysis of the state investment needed to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions mandated by the Clean Energy and Climate Plan, which includes the statutorily required target that Massachusetts be net zero by 2050.

State officials have made some effort to move toward these goals, but there is no comprehensive analysis of an important aspect of the journey: how much decarbonization will actually cost.

Though there’s no Massachusetts-specific estimate, the report says the cost to decarbonize the total U.S. economy by 2050 may be in the range of $25 to $30 trillion.

Hoffer says federal funding from a handful of new laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act and Chips and Science Act could contribute somewhere in the range of about 8-30% of required decarbonization spending, meaning 70-92% will need to be financed “by other means.” She recommends convening the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, Climate Office, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA to complete this analysis by the end of 2024.

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The climate chief’s 86-page report takes a step toward fulfilling one of Gov. Maura Healey’s early promises in office. Healey signed an executive order on her second day on the job to create Hoffer’s position and tasked her with analyzing the state’s executive offices and recommending ways to bring their operations more in line with the state’s climate goals.

The plan represents suggestions that Hoffer is making to the administration, and it’s unclear which ideas Healey may try to implement administratively and which ones might require legislative proposal.

In addition to getting a handle on the overall price to decarbonize the state, Hoffer strongly discourages any state spending that would undermine climate policy progress. The Climate Office said it does not support new natural gas infrastructure, though necessary repairs may need to be made while residents transition to cleaner energy.

Major reforms to Mass Save

To help facilitate that transition, Hoffer recommends major reforms to Mass Save — a collaborative of Massachusetts’ natural gas and electric utility providers meant to increase energy efficiency in residents’ homes and save people money through tools such as rebates.

“The Mass Save program currently is administered by electric and gas utilities. It has become increasingly clear, particularly in light of the successes of sister-state entities Efficiency Maine and Efficiency Vermont, that, under the current statutory framework, the Mass Save program is failing to take the steps necessary to achieve the transformative levels of building decarbonization required,” the report says.

It does not recommend removing electric and gas utility companies from the helm, but says “the program administrators are not directly subject to [state building decarbonization] goals.” As it is currently structured, the Climate Office wrote, Mass Save is more focused on supporting cost savings from energy efficiency than on decarbonization.

Hoffer recommends that a handful of executive offices and state departments convene to “articulate a vision for a future framework” for the program.

Aviation emissions,Climate Service Corps

In moving away from fossil fuels, the report also calls on the Massachusetts Port Authority and MassDOT to “develop a plan to reduce aviation emissions including consideration of alternative fuels and reduced availability of certain short hop flights where rail exists as an alternative.”

The trip between Boston and New York, where there’s an Amtrak alternative, would fall under this definition of “short hop” flights.

Massport has a plan to reach net zero by 2031 for emissions within its direct control, and Hoffer’s report encourages the agency to pursue chances to pilot sustainable aviation fuel technology.

The plan also outlines goals to build the clean energy workforce.

The recommended Climate Service Corps would provide volunteer opportunities and youth-focused programs “preparing them for good-paying jobs in clean energy and climate resilience.”

The report says there is strong interest from community colleges, and that the Corps would also offer pre-apprenticeship opportunities for trades that contribute to fighting climate change.

“The Massachusetts clean energy workforce will need to grow by an additional 29,700 full-time equivalent workers to meet the commonwealth’s 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction mandates,” the report says, in a section calling for the development of a new cross-agency plan for clean energy workforce development.

Massachusetts Competitive Partnership Chief Operating Officer Rebecca Davis said there’s a “real opportunity” for the state to simultaneously meet climate goals and invest in workers and the economy.

“How can we strategically and collaboratively work across sectors to build up this clean tech ecosystem or the climate innovation economy? There’s tremendous opportunity there,” Davis said. “It’s going to take really a cross-sectoral effort to achieve that. But I think that, kind of given what the core elements are, Massachusetts’ strengths is our innovation economy, strong business partners, the universities that we have.”

In the first quarter of 2024, the Climate Office plans to convene “interested private sector stakeholders” to establish a Corporate Climate Challenge for voluntary commitments to reduce certain emissions.

Paul Craney, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, argued more control should be given to the private sector.

“This administration and the previous administration gives certain energy industries the green light to produce energy while others are not allowed to. That’s talking about fossil fuels, natural gas, home heating oil, combustion engines — those are all things that are being forced out of the market by Gov. Healey and many others,” Craney said.

He continued, “What we fear is the end result is going to be less options for consumers and extremely high costs. And that is completely unsustainable if we want to be economically competitive with other states.”

The report calls for some immediate action on Hoffer’s goals.

The administration will review all executive office grants in the first half of 2024 to ensure they line up with the state’s environmental targets, it says, and the plan tasks Hoffer’s office and the Executive Office of Administration and Finance to come up with a plan to evaluate all proposed capital projects in terms of the climate mandates by Jan. 15, 2024, with hopes of using the new standards during the fiscal year 2025 Capital Improvement Plan process.

In recent years climate activists have ramped up advocacy around greenhouse gas emissions associated with manufacturing, transportation, installation and maintenance of building and infrastructure materials — which has been estimated to account for between 11-23% of annual global emissions.

Hoffer’s report calls for the Massachusetts School Building Authority to move toward a requirement that all new school buildings be decarbonized, using electric power for building systems rather than fossil fuels and to come up with a comprehensive plan for existing public schools to reduce emissions.

In April, Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler announced the creation of a new Clean Energy Innovation Career Pathway to allow high school students to access opportunities in the energy sector.

But the new report takes this education initiative a step further.

Hoffer suggests that the administration work with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to support a K-12 climate education curriculum.

“Too few school districts currently have a basic public-school curriculum to teach children about climate change — what it is, the causes and projected impacts, and what can be done to avoid more dangerous levels of warming. Numerous stakeholders, including students themselves, have called for such a curriculum to be offered,” the plan says.

Additionally, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs is planning a large-scale, multi-media public education campaign on climate issues.

Another core element of Hoffer’s recommendations is developing a Comprehensive Coastal Resilience Plan, which would have public authority on programs and regulatory efforts meant to address the coastal impacts of climate change.

The plan, led by the Office of Coastal Zone Management, would have a similar function as the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority in overseeing coastal resources with “specific authority to prevent and mitigate threats to public safety, property and the environment from coastal erosion, flooding and storm damage.”

“There is complexity with the coast, so the recommendation for there to be one authority that can think and act across that complexity — like Boston has both a coast and a harbor and three rivers that meet there, as well as old infrastructure where simply rainwater flooding is a challenge — so that intersection of challenges needs to be met with an intersection of solutions,” said Alison Bowden, interim Massachusetts director at The Nature Conservancy and an ecologist with a focus on the coast. “There are all kinds of disciplines, there are river people and coast people and ocean people and stormwater people. And we need those people working together.”

Though published Wednesday, the climate plan has been held up in Healey’s office since July. The executive order that created Hoffer’s position called for the report to be handed to the governor within 180 days, which was July 5. As of July 7, the governor’s team said the report had been delivered to Healey, but was “still being finalized,” and that they planned to publish it within a few weeks.