Don't Wait for Federal Action—State and Local Governments Need to Act Now
July 20, 2022
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in West Virginia v. EPA calls into question the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s authority when it comes to regulating greenhouse gases emitted by coal-fired power plants. The court limited the EPA’s authority to require these power plants to make technical and operational changes that would lower emission levels and said that the law did not permit the EPA to require changes in the overall electric generation system to offset individual power plant emissions. The court determined that while the Clean Air Act allows the EPA to regulate power plants by requiring them to put in place the best available system of emission reductions (like scrubbers and higher heat for more efficient burning), the EPA went beyond its authority when it required the shift in overall generation in the state to less-polluting power sources as a way to reduce the demand for coal power and therefore lower carbon pollution from the power plant.
It is very important to recognize that, while this decision is unfortunate, especially at a time we need to double down on our efforts to address climate pollution, it will not impact efforts already underway to meet our national climate goals. It is also important to be clear that this decision did not call into question settled law: The pollution that causes climate change is still subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. The EPA can come back with new approaches to regulation.
When the Obama Administration passed the Clean Power Plan, its stated goal was to “reduce the use of coal nationally from 38% of all electric generation in the US in 2014 to 27% by 2030.” It is notable that in 2021 only 22% of our electricity was being generated by coal-fired power plants. More coal plants closed across the country during the Trump Administration than over the course of the entire Obama Administration because coal is no longer cost competitive. It is now more expensive to burn coal than to generate electricity from wind and solar, as well as natural gas. This Supreme Court decision is not going to change this.
There has been and continues to be a lot written about West Virginia v. EPA and what it might mean for future regulation by the EPA. One of the biggest takeaways for me is that we should use the tools available to us now and not wait for federal action. In the effort to address the climate crisis, the market matters, as does state and local leadership. In Massachusetts, for example, we have ambitious climate goals, and we have made significant strides in backing up those goals with regulation and investments that have stimulated innovation in renewable energy, clean transportation, building efficiency and nature-based solutions for carbon sequestration and storage.
Case in point: The Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2025 and 2030, released at the end of June, will address long overdue reductions in fossil fuel use while also providing a robust toolkit to remove emissions already in the air with nature-based solutions. So, while federal leadership would be more than welcome and is definitely needed when it comes to climate action, we have seen over the past six years the power of private sector innovation, state leadership and market-based solutions to keep us moving toward our climate goals.
In 2021, the U.S. rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and pledged to reduce our climate pollution in half by 2030 (as compared to 2005 levels). Achieving this goal won’t be easy. Our 2020 pollution percentage was 22% of 2005 levels, and in 2021, we saw a post-pandemic bump that brought us up to 17%. We have a lot of work to do if we are to achieve our climate goals. Roughly half of the country’s electricity will need to come from renewable energy like wind and solar. Coal power will need to all but disappear, and we would also need to radically change our modes of transportation, increasing public transportation and electric vehicle accessibility. We will not meet our climate goals without reducing emissions while also increasing carbon sequestration from our forests, soils and wetlands.
While this court decision is disappointing, it will not slow us down. We will continue to be all in on the transition to renewable energy and clean transportation, and TNC will lead the way when it comes to nature-based solutions for carbon sequestration and storage.
April 18, 2022
As the weather warms and the days get longer, it is wonderful to get outdoors to watch spring slowly emerge—from vernal pools and the noise of the spring peepers to trees starting to form new buds. I am reminded of the importance of protecting nature and how lucky I am to have easy access to field and forest.
Last month, I had the occasion to speak with Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Katie Theoharides as part of our webinar series, Nature Connects. We talked about the need to accelerate action to reduce climate pollution by investing in renewable energy, and we discussed the importance of directing infrastructure funding to help front-line communities and others prepare for the impacts of climate change. We also agreed on the importance of getting people outdoors and into nature.
It has long been known that there are many health benefits derived from spending time in nature, but these benefits were front and center for many during the past two years when the pandemic kept us socially isolated and physically apart. Individuals who had better access to green spaces experienced better physical and mental health outcomes. Not surprisingly, equal access to nature is an important environmental justice goal.
As a former policy maker, I’ve seen the critical nexus between personal experiences in nature and support for environmental protection. The most passionate advocates are generally those people who are acting to protect something they care about from personal experience. Consequently, if people turn away from nature, and spend their time on screens, we risk having fewer people who are willing to fight to protect the environment. For these reasons, I was thrilled to hear that one of the Secretary’s priorities in the coming year, as the state heads toward the end of Governor Baker’s Administration, is to increase investments in green spaces, with an eye to environmental justice, as well as for the many ecological and climate benefits they provide.
One of the best parts of working at TNC is that everything we do to protect nature provides multiple benefits, not just for plants, animals and the planet, but for people as well. When we restore a salt marsh or conserve a forest, for example, it not only provides important green space for human health and enjoyment, it also protects and restores biodiversity. The places also play a critical role as a climate solution—building resilience, protecting built areas from climate impacts and contributing to emissions reduction goals, by both reducing emissions coming from degraded landscapes and sequestering carbon.
So my message to you is to take advantage of the warmer weather and get outdoors! And while you are there, recharging your own batteries, re-dedicate yourself to ensuring that the health and ecological benefits of protecting nature are available to everyone: plants, animals and people!
Now Is the Time to Push for More Renewable Energy
March 21, 2022
This month, I opened a whopping $850 bill from our fuel oil company, and I was reminded that there are many reasons for society to stop relying fossil fuel, in addition to concern over climate change. My first thought was of the many low-income Americans who are already suffering from the effects of inflation, wondering how a bill like this one would cripple their family finances.
This is not the first time we’ve seen wild fluctuations in oil and gas prices. And while we know from experience that this energy spike will pass, it is a reminder of a fundamental difference between renewable energy and fossil fuels. When we use gas, oil or coal to run our electric plants, or fuel our cars and heating systems, we leave ourselves vulnerable to market and geopolitical forces. In contrast, with renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydroelectricity, once the up-front costs of installation are paid for, there are few other costs to operate the systems.
This tells me that with gas prices soaring to historic highs, it is a good time to rededicate ourselves to achieving our global goals of transitioning away from fossil fuels.
As a country we have made progress on renewable energy, but there is still a long way to go.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, today renewables account for about 22% of all electricity generation. In Massachusetts, renewables account for nearly a quarter of all electricity generated. The trend of getting more renewable energy on the grid will continue, as we expect nearly half of all new U.S. electric generating capacity to come from solar in 2022.
What makes climate change a particularly tough nut to crack is that while many of the changes we need to see are structural, like building out renewable energy and investing in carbon sequestration, many of the solutions also require individuals to change their behaviors. For example, people can choose to take a bus rather than drive, or decide to buy an electric car rather than a car fueled by gas. In the past, when we have seen fuel prices soar, we have also seen a bump in purchases in electric vehicles (EVs) and more fuel-efficient cars, and more people choose to carpool or use public transportation. Unfortunately, these changes don’t generally last. What we have learned over time is that the best way to get results when it comes to achieving our renewable energy goals and addressing climate change is to focus on policy, investments, markets, and decision-ready science.
We know, for example, that the private sector matters when it comes to solving climate change. When Amazon committed to 100% renewable energy at their facilities, it led to rapid investment in wind energy in Texas, and government policy changes that have resulted in wind outpacing coal and other fossil fuels.
As another example, for EVs, the involvement of both the private sector and government matter. Given consumer choice, EVs can’t be a real solution unless auto manufactures produce and sell a variety of cars to meet the varied needs of their customers. In addition, governments must invest in the necessary charging infrastructure, and put in place policies to ensure that charging is readily available in every community, including those low income and urban areas that will rely solely on public charging options.
This latest energy crisis helps make the case for renewables, but we need to look beyond the short term to focus on systems change and investments that will ensure we stay on track to meet our ambitious climate and energy goals.
The climate and clean energy framework that emerged from discussions on the Build Back Better Act late last year included policies that would make meaningful progress toward our climate goals and unlock the promise of innovative, cleaner energy sources and the jobs that come with them.
The spike in fuel prices is likely to get worse before it gets better. If past is precedent, it may not last forever, but we can use this moment to double down on our commitment to end our dependence on fossil fuels and achieve our net zero carbon future.
—Deb Markowitz, Massachusetts State Director