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Legislators, MIT community discuss carbon pricing

State legislators and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors discussed proposed carbon pricing legislation in a panel Thursday evening at the MIT Stata Center. Carbon pricing, which calls for a fee on carbon emissions, has been promoted in two bills in the Massachusetts legislature.

Sen. Michael Barrett and Rep. Jennifer Benson, the authors of the two carbon pricing bills, discussed their bills and weighed the differences in their bills, mostly focusing on how the revenue from their bills would be spent.

Barrett has advocated for a revenue-neutral approach, meaning the funds are used to offset other taxes, and Benson has pushed for a revenue-positive approach, meaning the tax could be used to fund different state programs, to carbon pricing.

While these differences exist between their bills, the two legislators both stressed the importance of protections for low-income individuals when considering carbon pricing.

John Reilly, an MIT professor of the science and policy of global change, said during the panel that while he believes a carbon pricing bill of any sort is the most efficient mode of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, he is concerned with the potential effect on low-income families.

“[Carbon pricing] doesn’t automatically take account of the income effects of higher energy costs on households,” Reilly said. “We have to think of what the high-energy costs are going to do to low income consumers.”

Barrett explained that his Senate bill addresses the needs of middle class workers in Massachusetts through absolute revenue equality. He said he is working to ensure that 100 percent of a carbon fee is returned to working individuals.

“As soon as you retain a little of [the money] for state programs, you’re not imposing a revenue-neutral carbon fee,” Barrett said during the discussion. “You’re imposing a revenue-positive carbon tax. As soon as a carbon price can get framed by opponents as a tax, you’re asking politicians to conjure with the dreaded t-word and take a more courageous vote.”

Benson agreed that low-income protections are a crucial aspect of both bills but will likely compel conservative voters to label carbon pricing as a tax.

“I can guarantee you, anyone who doesn’t want to vote for the bill is going to call it a tax,” she said during the panel.

Benson’s bill, while similar to Barrett’s, implements partial refunds on the basis of financial need and is structured so the Massachusetts households with the lowest 40 percent of income will be unaffected. She said during the panel that it’s vital to keep these people in mind especially because they would be unable to benefit from current incentives in renewable energy, an alternative to using energy that produces carbon emissions.

“We haven’t been able to incentivize multi-unit dwellings and without doing that, we are missing a portion of our population and a huge portion of our carbon burning households,” Benson said.

Benson said she elected for a revenue-positive approach to carbon pricing because “time is not on our side.” She described her bill as the “most transparent option” on the table, and explained the importance of prioritizing environmental issues in the state budget.  

“We can’t even get to a one percent environmental budget and we haven’t for years,” Benson said. “Without money on the table, we cannot address these issues. If we really care about the environment, we have to be willing to put money into it, at the state level, in every city, town and the entire Commonwealth will benefit from it.”

In her district in Middlesex County, Benson said during the panel that money conservation is prioritized over energy conservation. Despite the party opposition to environmental protections, Benson said she believes several of her Republican constituents will be receptive to her proposed legislation.

“When I go out and have public forums in and around my district, I’m talking to the naysayers every single day,” Benson said. “Interestingly enough, when you have a conversation with them, they start to get it. We have to start with some level of commonality, like we believe that climate change is real. If we can’t agree on that, the rest of the discussions don’t matter.”

Christopher Knittel, an economics professor at MIT, said during the panel he would be pleased with the introduction of either bill into Massachusetts law because it would set a precedent for the world to follow.

“The power of any state-level legislation on carbon is as a demonstration,” Knittel said. “It shows that carbon pricing actually works. It shows the rest of the country that the economy hasn’t gone into the tank.”

Philip Higonnet, 55, of Somerville, said the panel gave him confidence that Massachusetts can lead the United States and other nations in implementing environmental protections.

“Boston, Cambridge, Massachusetts — our part of the world — has really made abolition, women’s rights, all kinds of important issues,” Higonnet said. “Climate change is pretty much the most important issue of our time. I think it’s really important that Massachusetts be a leader in this issue, the way it has been in so many others.”

Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan said he attended the panel both to support his colleagues and to promote student engagement with climate policy issues.

“It’s really important for young people to understand this issue and be able to advocate for it,” Zondervan told The Daily Free Press. “Even if you just talk to your friends and help them understand it a little better, that helps.”

After the event, Claire Holleran, a senior lecturer and MIT Climate Action Team member, said she organized the panel because she thinks college students have a major stake in in environmental politics and should be included in conversations with professionals.

“Because climate change will impact young people the most, it’s in our best interest to have a voice in the climate policy discussion,” Holleran said.

Alex Capozziello, a freshman at Boston College, said he attended the panel on behalf of his university’s EcoPledge organization, which focuses on educating students about sustainability, in order to figure out how they could promote similar goals in their club.

“At BC, we don’t have a climate action-type club,” Capozziello said. “Our EcoPledge group focuses on sustainability but not so much policy, so this will hopefully just give students a new perspective.”

Camille Mojica contributed to the reporting of this article.

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