BOSTON -- Massachusetts is joining the race to decarbonization, with state leaders weighing ambitious plans to all-but-eliminate greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades.

On Thursday, the state Senate rolled out a sweeping climate change proposal that would require the state to slash carbon emissions below previous benchmarks.

The bill envisions a "net-zero" carbon economy by 2050, where emissions from gas-guzzling cars and home heating oil are substantially replaced by electric vehicles and by wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

So far, no other major economy in the world has achieved net-zero emissions. Only two other states, New York and California, have committed to such plans. While carbon emissions would not be totally eliminated, the goals envision steps such as forest restoration to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, says the planet is in "a race against time" to offset the impact of climate change, and governments need to take bolder steps to cut emissions.

"We must act with a sense of real urgency and immediacy," Spilka told reporters at a briefing. "We can't stick our heads in the sand. We need to act now."

Spilka said rollbacks of environmental protections under Republican President Donald Trump, who has moved to diminish the federal government's role in planning for climate change, increases the burden on states in the carbon reducing effort.

The Senate bill follows a pledge by Gov. Charlie Baker during his annual speech to lawmakers Tuesday that his administration is committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

"We’re a national leader on climate policy, but we have to take more decisive action," Baker, a Republican, said in his State of the Commonwealth address. "From fishing and farming to critical public infrastructure and basic necessities like clean drinking water, there’s no dispute that the consequences of climate change are real and potentially devastating."

New goals

Massachusetts is already required to lower its carbon output by 25% of 1990s levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050, to comply with the federal Global Warming Solutions Act. A 2016 ruling by the state Supreme Judicial Court mandated stepped-up efforts to hit those benchmarks.

Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Katie Theoharides said the latest data on emissions reductions shows that, as of 2017, the state was close to reaching its initial goal. It has reduced emissions by about 22.4% of 1990s levels.

She attributed the decline, in part, to a shift from coal- and oil-fired power plants for electricity.

"But over the next decade we really need to target the building and transportation sectors and continue to bring down electric sector emissions," she said.

Theoharides said the federal law allows the executive branch to set tougher greenhouse gas reductions, including setting net-zero targets, which the Baker administration plans to do "in short order."

To help meet the new benchmarks, Baker is pursing a multi-state pact called the Transportation Climate Initiative that envisions a cap-and-trade program for vehicle emissions.

Modeled on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has reduced emissions from power plants, states in the transportation pact are working on a proposal that would tax suppliers who transport fuel across state lines for excess carbon emissions, based on caps that still must be set.

Theoharides called the transportation pact "a critical part of our ability to hit these ambitious climate targets."

"It's the place we need to be to avoid the worst impacts of climate change," she said.

Still, the regional plan faces opposition from conservative groups and some business organizations who argue the costs will ultimately be passed onto consumers at the gas pump.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, says his state won't be joining the pact. And Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, also a Republican, has vowed to veto any carbon tax.

Aggressive plans

The state Senate's climate change bill, which could come up for a vote next week, outlines a series of aggressive proposals, from setting a price on carbon and updating building codes and energy efficiency standards to requiring the MBTA to electrify its fleet of buses over the next two decades.

One of the bill's lead authors, Sen. Michael J. Barrett, D-Lexington, acknowledges that meeting the ambitious goals "will take everything Massachusetts can muster."

"This is a heck of a challenge for us," he said. "And we can't do it unless everyone has a laser-focus and gets serious about the job."

Barrett said despite the Baker administration's projections that the state is on track to meet it's 2020 reduction goals, it will end up short when the data is released.

He cited last year's closure of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, which generated about 60% of the state's carbon-free energy, for a slight uptick in emissions.

To improve the data, a provision in the Senate bill requires more frequent reporting of carbon reduction benchmarks and a shorter time frame to meet specific goals.

"There's not going to be anymore slacking off and three-year delays," Barrett said. "We need to get serious about holding ourselves accountable and figuring out how well we've done."

So far, only California and New York have adopted similar policies, and all three states face obstacles to shifting to green energy and reducing vehicle and buildings emissions.

Managing the costs of reaching the climate targets will be a major challenge for all three states, which already have some of the highest energy costs in the nation.

The transportation sector is by far the single biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution in all three states. Cars, SUVs, trucks, buses and planes are responsible for roughly 40% of Massachusetts emissions; 41% of California’s and 33% of New York’s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The net-zero pledges are drawing praise from environmentalists, even those who've criticized Baker and the Legislature for not moving quickly enough on climate change.

"Climate change is affecting our health, our economy, and our way of life," Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said in a statement. "This commitment is the kind of action we need from our elected officials to protect ourselves from the worst impacts of the climate crisis."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.

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