BOSTON (SHNS) – Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said Wednesday that the COVID-19 pandemic has only sharpened her and the administration’s resolve to push forward with its climate change agenda, including a regional transportation emissions cap-and-trade program for gasoline that would add additional costs at the pump.
Despite the virus pushing global economies into recession and threatening the futures of countless businesses, Theoharides said the collision of a highly-contagious respiratory disease and debate over racial injustice has played a significant role in highlighting how communities that have historically been left out of the environmental planning process can be hurt by climate change and pollution.
“It’s not just a climate change piece here. It’s also about local air quality and communities that have been disproportionately impacted by air quality and these are often communities of color,” Theoharides said.
The administration, in additional to finalizing its plan to achieve its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, also plans to update its environmental justice policies before the end of the year to take into account COVID-19 and other factors as it considers energy projects and other programs. It will be just the second update to the policy that was established in 2002, and last changed in 2017.
The secretary took part in an hour-long discussion hosted by the Environmental League of Massachusetts about the work her agencies have been doing during the pandemic and how COVID-19 has impacted their planning.
Asked specifically about the future of the multi-state Transportation and Climate Initiative, Theoharides said the six-month delay in releasing a final MOU for signatures should have no impact on the proposed start date for the program, which had been 2022.
“I think there continues to be really strong coordination between the states,” Theoharides said. “We did push back the deadline to give all of the states time to deal with the pandemic and process what this meant, but none of us feels this changes the urgency or the need for TCI.”
The initiative would put a cap on emissions emitted by vehicles, and require gasoline suppliers to buy allowances based on the carbon content of their fuel. The cap-and-trade program could add as much as 17 cents per gallon to the price of gasoline, but would also generate hundreds of millions of dollars for participating states to invest in climate change mitigation.
Rather than creating a disincentive, Theoharides said the current pandemic has made a “compelling” argument for why TCI is necessary.
“I think it’s built an even stronger case for TCI and the investments we can make with the revenue at a time when revenue might be limited,” she said.
The coalition now plans to release a final proposal for states to review and sign by the fall, and some states, though not Massachusetts, will need a vote of their Legislature to approve participation.
One thing the administration has been able to follow through on during the pandemic is issuing a letter of determination updating the state’s carbon emission reduction targets to net-zero by 2050. Baker outlined this as a priority in his State of the Commonwealth address in January, and Theoharides signed the final notice in April.
Theoharides said that if the pandemic has taught her anything about how states and countries should be preparing for climate change it’s that they “don’t want to deny the science.”
“There’s never been a more important time for us to dig down and continue our efforts on climate change. The pandemic has given us a glimpse of what happens where you don’t prepare for something,” she said.
In particular, Theohardies said the next decade is going to be critical for states like Massachusetts to put themselves on the right track and implement the policies that will be necessary to meet 2050 emission reduction goals.
She noted, for example, that over the next 30 years many consumers will only replace their vehicles two to three times, so steering their toward electric or other low-emission options is urgent.
Theoharides said the administration does not think current trends brought on by the pandemic, such as reduced traffic and lower public transit ridership, will last long enough to have an impact on the state’s plans to meet its climate change goals.
That extends to the MOR-EV program, a once popular rebate program for electric vehicles that the Baker administration relaunched in January when it was able to identify new funding to support it.
“No one is buying electric vehicles right now,” Theoharides said.
The secretary did, however, lament that Gov. Baker’s bill to raise deeds fees to generate $1 billion over the next 10 years to spend on climate change mitigation in communities has stalled.
Other climate initiatives have similarly seemed to stall out during the pandemic.
The House passed Speaker Robert DeLeo’s own climate change adaptation bill that proposed to spent more than $1 billion in grants over 10 years to fight climate change, but it has not moved in the Senate. Meanwhile, the House has not taken action on a trio of bills approved by the Senate to set a net-zero 2050 emission reduction requirement and direct the administration to pursue carbon pricing mechanisms for the transportation and building sectors, and explore the electrification of the MBTA bus fleet.
One of the upsides of the COVID-19 outbreak, the secretary said, has been the renewed appreciation for nature preserves and outdoor recreation as people look for a safe, socially distant way to exercise and decompress.
Theoharides said the administration has been looking at data being compiled by Google using cellphone GPS and found that as of June 7 in some counties there were parks and other public spaces where usage was up 200 percent from the same days a year ago.
“We hope these are users who will continue to use park and open spaces and value these spaces after the pandemic is over,” she said.