Equity in Maryland’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Regime

This post originally appeared on Sierra Club’s Blog, Compass: Pointing the way to a clean energy future, on May 11, 2016: http://www.sierraclub.org/compass/2016/05/equity-maryland-s-greenhouse-gas-reduction-regime

Equity in Maryland’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Regime

By Stuart Clarke

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In just over a year Maryland has achieved a number of impressive milestones in its efforts to address the causes and consequences of climate change. Last Spring the General Assembly codified the Climate Change Commission as a permanent stakeholder body charged with advising the Governor and the legislature on climate and clean energy policy and programs. Then in July, the state’s Public Service Commission decided to extend and expand Maryland’s energy efficiency resource standards, which had been set to expire. Come November the Climate Change Commission released its first annual report, calling for an extension and expansion of the state’s greenhouse gas reduction mandate (from 25 percent by the year 2020 to 40 percent by the year 2030) and for a prioritization of equity considerations in our clean energy transition. Then, in the just-ended 2016 General Assembly session, the legislature passed, and the Governor signed, a bill that turned that 40 percent by 2030 recommendation into law. The session also saw passage of a bill to expand the state’s renewable energy mandate from 20 percent by 2022 to 25 percent by 2020.

We are of the view that, taken together, these developments represent the inauguration of a new phase of Maryland’s leadership on climate and clean energy. This new phase – what we might call Maryland’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Regime 2.0 (GGRR 2.0) – is characterized by several important commitments.

With the signature of Governor Hogan and the support of a number of Republicans in both chambers, the passage of the 40 percent by 2030 mandate represents a bipartisan commitment to extend and expand Maryland’s climate change leadership. The legislative record includes a finding by the Maryland Department of the Environment that achieving the 2009 mandate of a 25 percent reduction by 2020 will result in significant net economic benefits to the state. Accordingly, the passage of the new mandate also represents a commitment to the proposition that de-carbonization is a path to future prosperity rather than a threat to future prosperity.

The establishment of a permanent Climate Change Commission represents a commitment to the proposition that climate change leadership in Maryland should be transparent and accountable, and the Climate Commission’s 2015 report represents a commitment to the proposition that a decarbonized prosperity needs to be resilient, and needs to be equitable.

In identifying these commitments as key features of GGRR 2.0, we do not want to suggest that we are overconfident about how fully they will be respected and realized. We are not. Our proposition is that the manner in which our recent progress has occurred – including the language with which it has been framed – creates principles, criteria, aspirations and expectations to which the state can, and should, be held accountable.

These markers of climate and clean energy progress are not, of course, the set of developments that most forcefully marked Maryland’s last year. The year that moved us forward on climate and clean energy action also brought us – in the form of the police custody death of Freddy Gray and the unrest that followed – a sobering reminder of the kinds of progress that our progressive state has yet to achieve. Celebration of our climate and clean energy advances is tempered by the recognition that, absent attention and intention, ‘progress’ will often reproduce and reinforce structures and systems of inequity and injustice. Clean energy advocates ought not permit ourselves to look away from that reality. Instead, we should confront it for what it is, an opportunity to embrace and enact a broader transformative vision, one that seeks not simply create a clean energy future, but one that is fairer and more democratic as well.

In this context we are especially enthusiastic about the GGRR 2.0 commitment to equity. This commitment is made explicit in the Climate Commission’s 2015 report, which calls for Maryland’s 2030 planning to include consideration of the degree to which climate action strategies, policies and programs produce economic benefits that are equitably distributed across Maryland’s population; effectively address the economic dislocations that they may cause; and reduce energy burdens and improve resilience in vulnerable communities.

Until fairly recently Maryland interactions between climate action, energy policy, and equity considerations and constituencies have, as often as not, been tactical, incremental, and discontinuous. Equity advocates have been appropriately focused on the delivery of energy services to low income households and communities, often in the form of bill payment assistance, and energy efficiency upgrades. These advocates have also, on occasion, raised reasonable concerns about the economic impact that clean energy investments will have in increasing electricity rates for low and moderate income households. On the other side, when not ignoring equity considerations, clean energy advocates have too often sought to use them merely for tactical leverage, to gain the support of Baltimore or Prince Georges County legislators.

Our hope is that the GGRR 2.0 commitment to equity can help promote a weaving together of equity and clean energy challenges and constituencies into a new movement focused on making Maryland’s energy system cleaner, fairer, and more democratic. This movement would be built on the growing recognition that strategies to promote clean energy progress can also address and mitigate social and economic inequity if two simple principles are adhered to: we must insure equitable access to the benefits generated by clean energy strategies, policies, and programs; and we must identify and address how the costs of those strategies, policies, and programs can disproportionately burden the poor and the vulnerable.

Equity and clean energy advocates have already been forging mutually convenient alliances to highlight the community health burdens associated with the embrace of lower carbon content ‘bridge’ fuels and technologies like fracked natural gas and waste-to-energy incineration. We are pleased to begin to see these alliances ramifying, as advocates begin to find common cause in strategies and policies that drive us towards an equitably prosperous clean energy future. These include policies to insure that low income households and communities of color are able to access the economic and health benefits associated with living in more energy efficient dwellings powered by renewable energy; the job creation benefits associated with increased investment in renewable energy generation; and the security and stability benefits associated with increased energy resilience from expanded micro grids and distributed generation.

We are especially pleased that a piece of Town Creek-funded work may help to facilitate and inform these new relationships and ambitions in Maryland. “Planning for Climate and Energy Equity in Maryland” is a comprehensive review of the environmental justice and energy equity challenges and opportunities embedded in the Maryland Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan. This report – commissioned by the Maryland Environmental Health Network and conducted by Skeo Solutions Consulting – provides a precise review of the justice and equity aspects of Maryland’s existing Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan, while also emphasizing the need for the plan’s programmatic interventions to take place in the context of inclusive and adaptive planning for equitable outcomes. Since policies and programs that are neutral on their face can have inequitable impacts when implemented across our state’s particular geography of vulnerability, the report also emphasizes the importance of developing and implementing tools, techniques and practices that will allow for the precise locating of equity challenges and opportunities.

To be sure, Baltimore and Maryland are no different than other cities and states in preserving and extending legacies of inequity and injustice. We are simply in a moment when it is especially difficult to pretend otherwise. Since it would be unwise to expect that this moment will last, we ought to strive to use it wisely and productively. Fortunately, opportunities to reduce carbon pollution while also redressing energy and environmental inequities abound.

As the state’s representatives on the RGGI Board consider if and how to continue and expand RGGI’s progress in reducing regional greenhouse gas emissions, we hope that they will embrace the opportunity to include the views and perspectives of the low income constituents that directly benefit from the auction revenues generated by the carbon cap.

As the Public Service Commission explores how our electric grid can be made more resilient and more supportive of clean energy, we hope that they will embrace the opportunity to consider – along with the state’s low income and vulnerable constituents – how it can be made fairer as well.

As the Maryland Climate Change Commission develops its 2016 Annual report, we hope that it will embrace the opportunity to make good on its 2015 commitment to emphasize equity considerations, and generate robust recommendations for how Maryland can better track and plan for the distribution of the benefits and burdens of climate policy and planning.