The Power of Policy

By Pam Reynolds

Across the region, progressive climate laws championed by CLF and partners are ushering in a new clean energy future.

Most afternoons, miles of cars and trucks inch through Boston on Interstate 93. They sit bumper to bumper, taillights glowing like holiday lights. But it’s no party. Instead, another day of commuting is underway on one of New England’s most smog-choked highways. Vehicles like these, primarily gas-powered, account for 40% of climate-damaging emissions across the region.

And since the pandemic, laments Adi Nochur, a Somerville resident and senior transportation planner at the Boston-based Metropolitan Area Planning Council, “driving long distances has rebounded to where it was before the pandemic.” 

But as discouraging as this may sound, change is afoot. Five of six New England states now have potentially transformative climate laws on the books. Those laws lay the groundwork for a clean energy future in which people and goods move about in vehicles that don’t rely on fossil fuels. These cars and trucks will no longer spew toxic fumes because they’ll be electric. Charging stations will supply them with power derived from wind and solar. That same clean power will heat and cool our homes and businesses. And in this not-too-distant future, perhaps commuters on I-93 in Boston (or, for that matter, I-95 in Connecticut or I-295 in Maine) will ditch their cars altogether in favor of a smooth ride to work via electrified public buses and trains. 

This is CLF’s vision for New England. Along with our partners and supporters, we’re creating climate policies that will dramatically cut carbon emissions in the next 10 years, particularly in sectors responsible for the most pollution – such as transportation. Thanks to our legal expertise, long-standing community partnerships, and willingness to doggedly pursue our goals, we prove daily how to shape environmental policy, enforce existing laws, and challenge powerful opponents when they put profit first.

“CLF’s work here in New England is paving the way for progressive climate policies across the country,” says Caitlin Peale Sloan, vice president for Massachusetts. “And that’s going to make the difference between a clean, prosperous future in which we meet our net zero carbon emissions targets and potential climate catastrophe.” 

Nochur, who serves on CLF’s Massachusetts Advisory Board, is heartened. “I’m cautiously optimistic – except for days when I happen to be stuck on 93 in traffic,” he says.   

Climate Laws with Teeth

If there is any hope of reducing carbon emissions by 2050, rock-solid climate laws are the key. The problem: only about 16 states have enforceable climate mandates. Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine have all passed binding climate laws. CLF and our partners pushed three of these states – Rhode Island, Maine, and Vermont – to pass laws in just the last three years. Last year, CLF advocates urged Massachusetts, where we helped to pass the region’s first binding climate law in 2008 and to strengthen it in 2021, to do even more to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy development, and green building codes. And in New Hampshire, where no binding climate law is on the books, we are launching a fight to ensure one gets passed. We’ve succeeded because, unlike other organizations, we are active in all six New England states. The lessons we learn in one state we absorb and apply in another. 

“We know that binding climate laws that cap carbon emissions can quickly make a difference,” says Peale Sloan. “Especially when they address the most polluting sectors, like transportation.”

A person charging an electric car
Electric cars are gaining traction in New England, and they are critical to cutting carbon pollution in the region. Photo: Shutterstock

On the Move, With Clean Cars and Trucks

Because transportation represents such a massive chunk of carbon pollution, moving to clean electric vehicles is pivotal to meeting our carbon goals. Fortunately, the transition is underway on the highway and in state houses. Last year, Rhode Island passed new regulations designed to spur purchases of electric cars and trucks. The Advanced Clean Cars II and Advanced Clean Trucks standards went into effect in January 2024 and require that an annually increasing percentage of new cars offered for sale in Rhode Island must be zero emission, building to 100% by 2035. (The Clean Truck standards will go into effect beginning with model year 2025.) With a push from CLF and our partners, Massachusetts and Vermont have also adopted the standards.

In Connecticut, where Governor Ned Lamont withdrew a proposal to adopt the same clean car standards late last year, and in Maine, CLF and partners continue to push to get more electric vehicles on the road while building the charging infrastructure necessary to make wide-scale adoption of clean cars viable. 

And we haven’t forgotten that electrifying vehicles alone will not get us to a greener tomorrow. We need fast, affordable, and robust public transit options that allow us to move about without getting into a car. 

Undoubtedly, the climate laws pushed by CLF are critical to meeting our carbon goals, but we know there’s still much to do.

“It took a long time to get us to the state we’re in,” reflects Nochur, “and we don’t have a ton of time to get out of it. But there are folks committed to moving things in the right direction, so that gives me hope.”