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Maryland Plans to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 60% in 2031

A team of researchers has developed a plan for helping the state achieve its ambitious climate goals, which includes increasing EV purchases, a reduction in driving, switching more buildings to electricity and generating more renewable energy.

Scale up the purchase of electric cars, trucks and buses. Encourage people to drive less. Push homes, buildings and industries to run entirely on electricity. And ensure all the energy generated in Maryland comes from carbon-free sources like wind and solar.

Those are the key steps on an emissions road map crafted by a team of researchers at the University of Maryland’s Center for Global Sustainability who were tasked with answering an intimidating question: What will it take for Maryland to slash its statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent in 2031, compared to the levels in 2006?

Last year, Maryland legislators passed a law requiring those cuts to planet-warming gasses, with the subsequent goal of carbon neutrality by 2045. Together, they are among the most ambitious climate targets for any state in the nation.

Maryland already is about halfway to the 2031 goal, according to an emissions inventory in 2020. If the state fully implements policies already on the books, only about a fifth of the reductions remain unaccounted for, according to the university’s researchers.

That’s a shortfall of about 10.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas emitted by human activities. That equates to 2.35 million gas-powered cars driven for one year, or about 2.8 coal-fired power plants burning for one year, according to an Environmental Protection Agency calculator.

Closing the gap will require adopting all those new environmentally friendly policies, the researchers projected after gathering heaps of data about the state’s emissions to input into a powerful computer model.

The report, released Friday, is broken down by sector, and the “Climate Pathway” created by the researchers predicts that the greatest reductions will need to come from electricity generation, transportation and building energy use. Smaller amounts of reductions will need to come from the industry, the waste management sector and agriculture.

“Certainly, there could be variations on this pathway that will also get you there. But we tried to be very holistic in how we looked at all the different sectors,” said Kathleen Kennedy, an assistant research professor at the global sustainability center and the lead author of the emissions report. “Some of it just comes down to: Well, there’s a lot of emissions in this sector, so you have to get some reductions out of that large amount of emissions.”

The research also involved conversations with state agencies, including the Maryland Department of Transportation, not only to gather their data on emissions, but to understand what potential future policies might make sense to run through the model, which would then tabulate the amount of emissions reductions yielded.

Essentially, the researchers asked state officials: “How can we move it quickly enough, but not in a way that you guys feel would be unreasonably jarring?” said Nate Hultman, the director of the center, which was launched in 2016 under the umbrella of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

If Maryland can reach its 2031 goal, it will be on the right path to achieving the net-zero requirement, according to the report, which accounts for potential carbon reductions from forests, or from technology capable of removing carbon from our atmosphere.

The center’s researchers have tackled emissions studies at the national scale, for the America is All in Coalition, but getting tapped by the Maryland Department of the Environment to produce a localized report felt unique, Hultman said.

“This is the first time we’ve done such a kind of intense evaluation with an individual state, and working with all the state agencies,” Hultman said. “So, it’s a great privilege for us to be able to work using the tools we have developed to help our state.”

The General Assembly required the draft report be completed by Friday. Next, it will be open for public comment, before a final version is released in December.

Maryland Environment Secretary Serena McIlwain said her department plans to hold listening sessions online and around the state in the coming months.

“We want to know what you think about how to turn the analysis that you’ll see here in the report into an action plan,” she said during a Friday news conference.

The report also dives into the health benefits that are expected to accompany emissions reductions, and the economic ones, the latter of which were tabulated by researchers at Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute.

The report estimates 16,000 new jobs and $1.5 billion worth of personal income increases will come from the decarbonization effort by 2031, as well as $1.09 to $2.44 billion worth of health benefits, including healthcare costs avoided.

In an interview Thursday, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said he feels the report will show Marylanders what is possible in terms of addressing climate change, all the while creating economic growth.

“They’ll see that these goals are not just ideas, that they’re not just numbers that were pulled out of the sky, but there’s data,” said Moore, who announced Thursday, alongside White House climate czar Ali Zaidi, that Maryland will be joining the National Building Performance Standards Coalition.

The building sector has proven difficult for Maryland legislators to address. Last year’s climate legislation initially included a provision that eventually would have required newly constructed buildings to rely solely on electricity to meet space and water heating demands. But it was removed after pushback.

Instead, the law states that most buildings of at least 35,000 square feet must reduce their carbon footprints by 20 percent by 2030.

In order to meet the state’s climate goals, the university researchers determined that Maryland would need to adopt policies to encourage electric buildings and appliances, and ensure that 60 percent of the energy consumption in residential buildings, and 70 percent in commercial buildings, is electricity by 2031.

Greening the power grid is key to achieving reductions in all of the other sectors, like buildings and transportation, the report states. In other words, if the grid isn’t fed by clean energy, there is less benefit to driving electric cars or using electric heat pumps.

The researchers recommend that Maryland adopt a policy that 100 percent of in-state electricity be produced from carbon-free sources by 2035. The researchers estimated that this change would need to be driven by the rapid growth of wind and solar power, as well as state policy changes to encourage the retirement of natural gas plants.

Maryland also needs to take advantage of more opportunities to deploy solar panels, by leveraging unused land at sites like airports, hospitals and closed landfills and brownfields, the report stated.

All of Maryland’s coal-fired power plants already have announced plans to stop burning the fossil fuel in the near future. But in 2031, the state likely will still import about half of its power from nearby states, including West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, that do not have plans to fully phase out coal power, the report states. So ensuring Maryland’s power generation is green is all the more important.

Because of rapid electrification in sectors like transportation, the demand for electricity is expected to grow by 20 percent from today’s levels, a level of growth comparable to demand increases in Maryland in the 1990s. By 2045, it could grow by 50 percent.

As a result, the report highlights the need to ensure there will not be backlogs slowing the connection of renewable energy to the PJM Interconnection grid, which includes Maryland and a collection of neighboring states.

In the transportation sector, Maryland has made good strides by adopting California’s rules requiring all new cars to be electric by 2035, with some exceptions for plug-in hybrids. But the report notes that Maryland has more work to do to make electric vehicles more attractive to buyers, including by expanding charging infrastructure.

For another thing, while Maryland offers a $3,000 excise tax credit for electric vehicle purchases, other states such as New Jersey, Colorado and Connecticut offer higher credits between $5,500 and $8,000, the report notes.

Maryland also passed a more watered-down rule for electric trucks, requiring a “thorough needs assessment prior to implementation, which could delay realization of the rule,” according to the University of Maryland report. But Maryland’s rule does include ambitious targets, “given that the current market for [zero-emission] trucks is close to zero at present,” so robust government incentive programs will be required.

But simply electrifying the vehicles on the road in Maryland won’t be sufficient, according to the report. Maryland also must build transit infrastructure to discourage the amount of miles residents travel by car.

It’s an “uphill battle,” the report states.

From 2014 to 2019, that number increased steadily each year. It dropped off during the pandemic, but has ticked up again over the past few years, although not to pre-pandemic levels.

To discourage driving, Maryland localities must prioritize dense, compact development, and focus on development near public transit hubs, according to the report.

Though the to-do list might sound daunting, Hultman said it’s important to remember how far the effort to cut emissions already has progressed, what with the electric cars already on the roads, and the cost of producing renewable energy declining over time.

“Like any really big task, it might feel really challenging at this stage,” Hultman said. “It’s important to remember that we’ve already at least partially crossed that bridge.”

©2023 Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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