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Maryland must take drastic action to limit climate change; this legislation is it | COMMENTARY

The Maryland General Assembly convened its annual session this month, and lawmakers are staring down a bevy of crises. There are the obvious political, economic and health crises, but looming next to those is climate change and its long-term repercussions to the state.

We’re losing agricultural land to saltwater intrusion due to rising sea levels. Rainstorms are increasing in frequency and ferocity — resembling the heavy rain spells typically seen in tropical climates. Coastal communities such as Annapolis are dealing with tidal flooding that threatens historic and commercially important areas. Neighborhoods in Baltimore face sweltering temperatures due to heat islands, and nationwide the five hottest years ever recorded have all occurred since 2012.

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These changes are not natural. They are caused by burning fossil fuels to power our cars, homes and industries. The unnatural changes are exacerbated by losing forests, wetlands and fertile soil to development and intensive farming practices. These important natural filters clean our air and water as well as store carbon.

Drastic action is needed. That’s why this year we’ll be wholeheartedly advocating for Maryland legislators to pass the Climate Solutions Now Act.

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The bill contains concrete ways for the state to reduce 60% of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutral by 2045. Doing so would put Maryland in line with worldwide leaders, such as California, on climate change and meet the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The legislation calls for the state to electrify its vehicle fleets, ensure new state buildings are built to be carbon neutral, provide workforce development to help workers entering clean energy careers and address environmental justice issues in communities disproportionately impacted by the impacts of climate change. These impacts include higher average temperatures, frequent flooding, increased rates of respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, and impairments to cognitive development in children.

At the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), we’re particularly pleased to see a provision in the bill calling for the state to plant 5 million trees by 2030, including 500,000 trees in urban, traditionally underserved areas. This would not be an aspirational goal either. The bill requires the state to allocate $15 million from the Bay Restoration Fund to support the tree plantings as well as hire a program coordinator and forestry staff using Bay Trust Fund money generated from fuel and rental car taxes.

The tree planting program can serve as an example of how to use taxes generated from sources of greenhouse gas emissions to address the negative impacts of those emissions. But it’s much more than that. In addition to trees’ natural ability to filter air and water, they provide habitat to animals, increase property values, beautify communities and prevent heat islands developing in urban areas, where temperatures rise exponentially without trees. More trees will also help the state reach its pollution reduction goals by 2025 as part of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint and maintain the reductions in the future.

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CBF is already involved in this important work. In Pennsylvania, CBF staffers are working with a coalition of governments, conservation organizations, farmers, businesses and citizens to plant 10 million trees in the Keystone state. In Maryland, we’ve long organized large-scale tree plantings to add streamside buffers to improve water quality. This past year, we worked with volunteers to plant more than 3,000 trees on farms in the Monocacy River watershed in Carroll and Frederick counties.

In organizing this work each year, we’ve seen consistent backlogs preventing willing landowners from accessing government resources to plant trees. We believe this dedicated tree planting program will create more opportunities for landowners to improve their land and the surrounding environment.

A version of the Climate Solutions Now Act was introduced last year and unfortunately languished in the pandemic-shortened session. This year several statewide and regional environmental organizations, including CBF, have come together to back the 2021 version as their top priority.

We all understand that legislators will be dealing with several competing priorities during what will be a different type of session amid the ongoing pandemic. That’s why CBF and other organizations are strongly backing this one bill. We don’t want there to be confusion among lawmakers about which environmental legislation most warrants their consideration. We, on behalf of those who care about the future of the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland’s environment, are urging Maryland legislators to pass the Climate Solutions Now Act this year.

Josh Kurtz (jkurtz@cbf.org) is the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland.

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