Column: The price of carbon pollution

On Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk are three options for reducing emissions from cars and trucks -- the largest source of heat-trapping carbon pollution in America. As we’re in the midst of a global climate emergency, the governor should be aggressive in his choice and support that which cuts the most pollution most quickly.

Over the last year, Massachusetts has participated in a regional collaboration of 12 Northeast and mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia, known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI. The program is designed to set a cap on emissions from fuel sold in the region for on-the-road use. It represents 72 million residents and 52 million registered vehicles.

TCI would hold auctions for regional fuel suppliers to purchase emission allowances for every ton of carbon their fuel would emit when burned. The allowances would begin with a cap that would decrease annually.

The costs of the allowances would be passed along to drivers at the pump incentivizing them to use less gas. The proceeds from the allowance auctions would then return to participating states to develop cleaner and more efficient transportation opportunities than presently exist. The sale of allowances could generate up to $500 million a year for Massachusetts, depending on where the cap is set.

TCI provides participating states with three possible scenarios for reducing vehicle pollution when setting their cap.

One option is to reduce vehicle carbon pollution by 25 percent starting in 2022. This could add about 17 cents to the price of a gallon of gas at the pump.

The second would reduce emissions by 22.5 percent, with the cost per gallon at nine cents.

The third is a 20 percent emission reduction by 2032, with a cost to drivers of five cents per gallon.

If Massachusetts remains committed to its own legal mandate to cut dangerous greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050, the first option is preferable.

The TCI cap-and-invest program will foster the transition to cleaner fuels and transportation improvements. Returning funds could be used to help modernize the MBTA, increase the number of electric vehicles and charging stations, improve sidewalks and bike lanes, and provide transportation funding to rural and lower-income communities. It will also yield annual public health benefits across the Northeast of $3-$10 billion, and up to $900 million in avoided costs due to worsening storms and other climate impacts.

Higher fuel costs may seem unattractive now, but they are low compared to the increasing long-term costs of climate change.

Although TCI will lead to modest increases in the price of gas and diesel fuels, unlike a gas tax, which is fixed at the pump and does not guarantee emissions reductions, TCI is not fixed and would depend on market responses to the caps and how much of the wholesale expense suppliers choose to pass on to consumers.

Some suggest that in order for the commonwealth to fully participate in TCI, the legislature should first grant its approval. That concern, however, was settled in 2008 when under the Global Warming Solutions Act, lawmakers provided the Governor with the legal mechanism necessary for this type of carbon-pollution pricing.

TCI also has broad-based support from a wide range of business and environmental organizations, including the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Boston Green Ribbon Commission, Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, Massachusetts Business Roundtable, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Mass Audubon, Union of Concerned Scientists, and The Nature Conservancy. Two-thirds of Massachusetts residents are in favor of the program, as recently polled by the public policy forum MassINC. The public can also provide input on TCI through the end of February at the TCI website: www.transportationandclimate.org.

As the president continues to call climate change a “hoax” and Congress refuses to deal with the climate crises, it is increasingly up to states to address this existential threat. As such, Governor Baker should reject any legislative attempt to usurp his authority to participate in TCI, he should continue the Bay State’s regional leadership in the program and encourage other states to join, and he should choose the most effective and aggressive option for reducing carbon emissions in the most timely manner possible. The urgency of the climate crisis, our future, and the lives of our children demand no less.

Jack Clarke is the director of public policy and government relations at Mass Audubon and a Gloucester resident.

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