Lawmakers unveil an ambitious climate action plan for Maryland

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Maryland would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% and plant 5 million trees by 2030, under a revamped, ambitious climate change bill that lawmakers plan to introduce in this year’s General Assembly session.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) and Del. Dana M. Stein (D-Baltimore County) unveiled their “Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021,” which builds off their measure from last year, which was stopped short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The additional word, “now,” added to this year’s bill title engenders the sense of urgency necessary to address climate change, the sponsors explained Tuesday.

“Not tomorrow, not next year, not the year after. We have no time to waste,” Pinsky said during a virtual news conference hosted by Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “We’re seeing saltwater intrusion on the Eastern Shore. We’re actually losing prime agricultural cropland because of saltwater intrusion resulting from climate change.”

Currently, the state is only mandated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, based on 2006 levels. Pinsky credits market forces rather than conscious state policy for Maryland’s recent success in combatting climate change.

The Pinsky-Stein measure puts Maryland on a track towards achieving net-zero statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, and it invests resources in overburdened communities. For instance, 10% of the 5 million trees planted within the next decade would be placed in underserved urban areas, particularly in Baltimore City.

Not only do trees help reduce air pollution, but they also help mitigate “urban heat islands,” or the phenomenon that urban areas tend to have higher temperatures because they have more buildings and roads, which absorb sunlight’s heat more than natural landscapes like forests and farmland.

Advocates also pointed to a recent study by Harvard University, which found that people who live and work in areas with high levels of air pollution, particularly those who live near power plants, are at a significantly higher risk of dying from the coronavirus. And a disproportionate amount of fossil fuel plants are built in Black and Brown and low-income communities.

“They’ve been impacted by a toxic soup of chemicals that does not just impact one generation, they impacts multiple generations,” said Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

Climate change, COVID-19, environmental injustices and health inequities should all be considered together, advocates argued. Wilson referred to these related disparities as a “syndemic.”

Furthermore, this legislation provides specific roles for the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities, which has been lambasted this past year for its consistent lack of efficacy.

The commission would be tasked to define an underserved community and determine the percentage of state funding required for greenhouse gas emission reduction measures that would be effective there.

“I think this is an opportunity for our commissions to step up and be accounted for,” Wilson said. “Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities needs to step up and this is an opportunity for them to show the way, provide more leadership and making sure that those who are on the frontlines…the real experts on the issues, who have the lived experiences, are the ones that are leading the way.”

The commission was supposed to release an annual report last month, but this was delayed because a senior adviser to MDE who has led the last few commission meetings, Devon Dodson, has been sick, Dodson told Maryland Matters.

The climate legislation also mandates that the state lead by example and electrify all of its vehicles by 2030. Transportation currently account for 40% of Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions, Stein said.

“Our government can show the way to cleaner vehicles by electrifying the state fleet of busses and passenger vehicles, and that’s what the provisions of this bill do,” he said.

Any new bus that Maryland Transportation Administration purchases must be a zero emission bus by fiscal year 2023, which starts on July 1, 2022. Half of the passenger cars purchased by the state must be zero emissions vehicles during the next two years. Beginning in 2025, however, all passenger cars purchased by the state must be zero emission under the proposed bill, Stein said.

In order to ensure a just transition to clean energy, the measure also establishes a union workgroup made up of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, AFL-CIO and others, which will recommend workforce training and career pathways for displaced fossil fuel workers.

Pinsky and Stein decried the Maryland Commission on Climate Change — on which Pinsky serves — and the Maryland Department of the Environment for offering vague recommendations instead of specific action items. MDE drafted a greenhouse gas reduction plan in 2019, with a goal of reducing emissions by 44% by 2030.

“I like dancing as much as the first person, although I’m not very good at it,” Pinsky said. “But when you start dancing on accountability and policies and practices, it gets old very quickly and to date, from what I’ve seen in the plan [by MDE], there’s a lot of dancing. There are very few specifics, there’s very few quantifiable numbers as to which practice will lead to what reduction.”

Although there is general recognition of the value of some of the climate commission’s recommendations, such as planting trees as the most efficient way to capture pollutants in the air, there are seldom any specific action items that come out of state agencies, such as this bill’s goal to plant 5 million trees by 2030, 10% of which in underserved areas, Stein said.

Some provisions of this omnibus climate change bill will be introduced as individual legislation by other state lawmakers, such as one that would require the Maryland Transit Administration to purchase zero-emission busses starting in fiscal year 2023.

At the end of the day, however, it does not matter which one of these bills get pushed forward, as long as one does, Pinsky said. “We’re a highly urbanized, suburbanized, educated state. We should be at the forefront [in climate change], and we don’t care how we get there.”

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