By Jessica Halvorsen
Massachusetts has played an important role in carbon law (if there is such a field) in the United States, being the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit Massachusetts v. EPA, that ultimately ruled in 2007 that carbon dioxide is a “regulateable” pollutant, and led to Federal efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now, State Senator Michael J. Barrett of Lexington and many Senate colleagues would like Massachusetts to take a next great step forward, by implementing a carbon price in Massachusetts.
Here’s how it would work: essentially like a tax refund without the tax part. Funds will be gathered when people and businesses consume fossil fuels and energy (with the exception of electricity which is already covered by RGGI), and then be redistributed back to the payers on a per-person or per-company basis. It may not balance out precisely, but each group will, in the aggregate, receive back what it contributes. Those people that are more efficient will get back more than they pay in. However, it is the hope that 1) the price signal causes us to use less energy and thereby reduce the 80% of our emissions that are linked to transit and on-site fuel combustion for heating and cooking, and 2) that we spend the rebate on efficiency, and/or less carbon-intensive goods or services, leading to an overall reduction in our carbon emissions. Massachusetts Representatives and Senators will be asked to vote on this measure, so whether you agree or disagree with the concept, readers should contact their elected state representatives to voice support or concerns. Want to dig into the details? Read the proposed bill here. It’s only 9 pages; you can do it!
Edge effects of the policy, however, go beyond the mechanism of the carbon price itself. Professor Dr. Joe Lassiter of Harvard Business School, following Senator Barrett’s presentation at March’s BASG event, noted that price signals such as the proposed carbon price are among the strongest tools we have to change human behavior. However, he also noted that we in Massachusetts not only need to see to reducing our energy usage, we need to see to securing inexpensive energy for the state to remain competitive with other regions. We in New England do not have natural gas under us the way Pennsylvania or Mid Atlantic states do. Our edge effect is not just about energy costs along our borders with other states, but about our overall New England competitiveness with other regions. A holistic energy and carbon approach, he argued, is ultimately called for.
There is no edge to the planet when it comes to carbon, (regardless of what was believed in Christopher Columbus’ day), whether that carbon is released in Massachusetts, Guangzhou, or Timbuktu. Unlike water supplies, carbon stocks and flows are largely global in nature. The edge effect of pricing, however, would exist in our political and economic structures, rather than our scientific and ecological reality. Similarly, many other human endeavors, such as roads and developments, create ecological edge effects, fragmenting habitat, and creating edge zones in which plants and animals can behave differently than when in deep and undisturbed natural areas. Might something analogous happen to us in Massachusetts if nearby states don’t also adopt carbon pricing? Can we enlarge our “habitat” by proving the efficacy of the concept and inspiring others to follow our lead? It is a fact that we currently pay more than other regions for our energy; it is equally clear that responsible citizens, companies, and governments need to take strong action to transition to a low-carbon economy. We in Massachusetts will need to continue to debate and educate ourselves about the proposal, and decide whether we want to be on the leading edge (ha, ha) of carbon pricing in the Northeast.