Over my career as a scientist, probably my most gratifying accomplishment was contributing to Maryland’s 2009 legal commitment to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gas that are dangerously warming the planet. Later, I served on Maryland’s Commission on Climate Change when it recommended reauthorization of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act in 2016, committing to a reduction of 40% by 2030. Maryland was clearly a leader.
Since then, I have been dismayed to watch as other states, the world, major corporations and, indeed, science, passed us by.
Also in 2016, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was ratified with a goal of pursuing emission reductions sufficient to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In 2018, the world’s top scientific experts convened by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, concluded that this would require reducing these emissions to a net of zero around 2050.
Meanwhile, it took the Hogan administration until February 2021 to finalize a plan to implement the 2016 act, more than a year later than the law required. The plan relies on expanding Maryland’s renewable energy standard to include “clean” electricity produced from burning natural gas while capturing the carbon dioxide emitted. It also includes energy generated by small modular nuclear reactors. This is smoke and mirrors because neither of these technologies is likely to come on line in the time and at the scale needed. The General Assembly has appropriately rejected legislation that would make this change to the existing renewable standard.
Even if we accept the assertion of the administration’s plan that it would exceed the emissions reduction target of 40% by 2030, the actions included in the plan would leave us far short of the net-zero by 2050 target that IPCC scientists say is required. Actions ultimately needed are not started, just kicked down the road.
Meanwhile, other states have moved ahead. Virginia is shutting down all coal and gas-fired power plants over the next 20 years; Maryland isn’t. Even my native state of Louisiana, with its quintessential petrochemical economy, is developing — over months, not years — its own plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
The world’s nations are meeting in Glasgow this month to strengthen commitments to achieve this goal. Major corporations, from Microsoft and Apple to American Airlines and Shell Oil have made net-zero commitments.
Maryland’s Commission on Climate Change, largely controlled by the administration, has recommended a goal of achieving net zero emissions as early as 2045. However, there is no governor’s executive order, much less legislation, that commits Maryland to achieving this.
Particularly disappointing is that the Maryland General Assembly has failed for two consecutive years to pass bills that put us on a pathway to achieve what the Commission on Climate Change recommended. By upping the 2030 goal to a 60% reduction, actions required by the proposed legislation would have put us closer to a pathway to achieve net-zero. While we had a COVID-shortened session in 2020, the Climate Solutions Now Act failed again earlier this year without resolving relatively minor differences between the House and Senate. Two years wasted mean a planet that much warmer.
With record high temperatures, western wildfires that cast smoke clouds reaching Maryland, unprecedented floods, rain falling on top of Greenland for the first time, and hurricanes intensifying in a matter of hours over 90-degree Gulf waters, it should be clear that we confront a planetary crisis. And it will only get worse if we let greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere grow any more.
The latest IPCC report, issued two months ago, was called a “code red for humanity” by the U.N. secretary-general. It reaffirms the urgent need for deep cuts in emissions to reach net zero. There is still time, but not for half-measures, wishful thinking and delays. No more dithering, Maryland.
It is high time that our affluent and well-educated state reassume the leadership role that our good fortune obliges for us. If we don’t eliminate our emissions, how can we expect less affluent states or countries to do so?
In the 2022 session, the leaders of the General Assembly, the committee chairs and the House Speaker and Senate President, must not fail to pass comprehensive legislation that empowers climate solutions for our state. It must have not just aspirations, but muscle, teeth and great opportunities. This should be a top priority.
Donald F. Boesch (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president emeritus of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.