How To Fix Climate Change, Fairly

The Massachusetts Senate passed “An Act Setting Next-Generation Climate Policy” which made guides and timelines for implementing carbon emission pricing. The bill would also introduce a zero emissions requirement for all new state vehicles which would go into effect by 2024 and is contingent on affordable replacements being available. This would open the door for electric police cars. MAX SWEENY

“There’s a lot of ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but those ways need to be fair,” says State Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow when talking about the issue of climate change regulation and how it can disproportionately affect Western Mass.  This January, LHS alumni, Sen. Lesser, and his colleagues in the Massachusetts Senate passed with an overwhelming majority, bill S.2500 “An Act Setting Next-Generation Climate Policy” which in part would set a timeline for creating a carbon emission pricing strategy –in short a carbon tax. The bill would implement the measurement and pricing of all greenhouse gas emissions in the state. The senate also set the net-zero carbon emissions deadline for 2050 and hopes to convert many cars and houses to using electricity. The bill was passed in the Senate but is yet to be voted on in the House of Representatives.

“We have to make sure that any policy response is flexible enough to appreciate that life in Western Mass is different than life in Eastern Mass. We frankly drive a lot more in Western Mass,” says Sen. Lesser. His colleague on Beacon Hill, Representative Brian Ashe of Longmeadow, says that any state blanket climate tax is “just an unfair system for a lot of reasons. The bulk of everything is in the Metro Boston area. The population is there and the better transportation system. There’s gotta be some fair equity in this.”  Mr. Steve Marantz, SolarizeMass community solar coach, now running for the Select Board, gives an example: “if you’re a farmer and you’ve got tractors and equipment, that’s all taken for granted [in a blanket tax approach].  Higher-income people frankly pay the tax and barely notice. It’s very unfair in that regard.” Longmeadow Select Board Member Mr. Mark Gold says that “Western Massachusetts [often gets] the short end of the deal. They legislate for the masses –for the Boston area.” 

“Western Massachusetts [often gets] the short end of the deal. They legislate for the masses –for the Boston area.”

Longmeadow Select Board Member Mr. Mark Gold

An approach to a carbon tax that Rep. Ashe proposes is a prorated tax, meaning different regions would be taxed a different amount based on regional factors such as: the availability of transportation and income. However, Mr. Gold says that “it sounds good to say, let’s regionalize the burden for the carbon tax, so those who have other [green energy] options will have the most penalty [for emitting carbon], but I’m not sure that’s practical.” Mr. Marantz, says,“Our [carbon] tax dollars are going to go in big numbers to the Eastern part of the state. Instead of going to solve a problem, they are going to try to [lessen] the problem.” 

If passed, the Senate legislation would call for subsidies from $1,500 to $2,500 for hybrid and electric cars respectively. There’s a popular argument made that subsidizing electric cars only benefits the rich, who could have already afforded electric and hybrid cars, which tend to be more expensive than regular gasoline vehicles. People who can afford these types of cars would be getting some money back for buying them in the form of subsidy, they would not have to pay for gas and they would then be paying less of a carbon tax. According to Mr. Gold, this would incentivize people into buying more zero-emissions vehicles, “the way for society to induce a change in behavior is financial incentives.” However, he also says that “[the infrastructure] is not there yet. There’s gotta be a trickle-down of efficiency.” He notes that the closest Tesla dealership is in Framingham, 75 miles from Longmeadow. 

Sen. Lesser describes the goal is to eventually create self-sustaining demand, economies of scale and competition between car manufacturers, eventually benefiting all consumers. “The hope is that we incentivize purchasing so that the cars will reduce in price,” he says. “There will be a larger market for these cars, which would reduce the price. If we get enough cars on the road that are electric, that creates the incentive for the charging stations. Then it grows from there.” According to Sen. Lesser, the hope is that this bill would ultimately decrease the price of electric vehicles and make them accessible for everyone, which would make for a less regressive system. Rep. Ashe believes that in the end, this could “be for the greater good. If the air is cleaner, then the people who aren’t paying anything, they’re still going to benefit from the better air”.

Longmeadow is considered a “green community” by the state. According to Mr. Gold, over 80% of the town’s municipal buildings are powered by solar power. This makes Longmeadow eligible for grants that go towards energy-efficient products. One example of this is the switch to LED streetlights.  Mr. Gold argues that in this respect Western Massachusetts is benefiting, he says “Western Mass is actually getting some of that state money. We’re taking advantage of subsidies”. The town has been buying energy from solar farms, and by doing so, has also amassed solar energy credits. Longmeadow used to buy energy from Eversource, but now they buy it themselves from a solar farm for a cheaper price and Eversource only provides the infrastructure to deliver the energy. This is known as a power purchase agreement. “In fact, we’re using the green community money to help subsidize our street light purchase and replacing the boilers in some of our schools. We replaced the Williams [Middle School] one already. We’re putting in far more efficient things to heat the building,” says Mr. Gold. 

Steve Marantz, found another way for us to reap the rewards of pulling our weight and supporting Eastern Massachusetts: SolarizeMass. “The concept is volunteers from Springfield, volunteers from Longmeadow and state officials send out requests for proposals for solar companies,” explains Mr. Marantz. “It’s like buying in bulk; the concept is a lower cost for the consumer. We in Longmeadow had at least 40 houses [convert to solar energy].” Mr. Marantz believes that this legislation can benefit the community because of a rebate that would be based on how much money is collected from this tax. “The money that’s collected by this fee, 70% of that goes back to you and me as citizens of Massachusetts, 30% goes to the communities to spend on green projects,” he says.

This March a bill for a gas tax was passed through the House of Representatives, which would increase the price of gasoline by five cents a gallon and diesel by nine cents a gallon. Sen. Lesser regards this as a highly regressive tax, “Lower-income people pay a much higher share of their income [with this tax]. Rep. Ashe voted against it because he believes it would disproportionately affect Western Mass drivers. Sen. Lesser doesn’t support the fas tax either, but it hasn’t been voted on in the Senate. He says the carbon tax is different because of a “trading system that can pay dividends and that can get distributed in a more fair and equitable way.

An issue with renewable energy is that it can often be unreliable, like solar energy on cloudy day.  To tackle this, research centers all over the country are working on creating batteries that can store renewable energy. Massachusetts has become a center for manufacturing and developing these batteries. “We need to change our whole energy infrastructure. Our whole regulatory structure is set up around the central model,” says Sen. Lesser.  The central model means there are big centralized power plants that produce and send power to homes and buildings, what is common now. Once large efficient batteries become developed, a system called net-metering is implemented. Net metering is a billing system that gives consumers credits on their electricity bills when their solar panels produce more energy than they use. The excess energy produced is sent back to the power grid.  “We need to move to a decentralized model (net metering) so that homes can sell power back to the grid,” says Sen. Lesser.

“We really have to have a paradigm shift from everybody. You need the message to come from the top and trickle down.”

Rep. Brian Ashe

Rep. Ashe says a carbon tax is one small piece of what is really a multi-prong issue. “We really have to have a paradigm shift from everybody. You need the message to come from the top and trickle down.” Mr. Marantz agrees, “this will not save the world. It’s a good start, but we also need something more.”

Read more about the bills: https://climate-xchange.org/2020/01/23/mass-senates-climate-bills-overview-summary-context/

Kirat Grewal '22

Features Editor

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