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Act on Climate bill passes R.I. Senate and House, introducing accountability in achieving updated emissions reduction goals

Bill amending 2014 climate policy updates goals, increases transparency, looks to hold state accountable in commitment against climate change

The Act on Climate bill passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives 53-22 Tuesday after gaining approval from the state Senate last week. 

This is the first major climate legislation the state legislature has passed since 2014, according to Dawn King, senior lecturer in environment and society. The bill has been introduced for the past four years, and this was the first year it passed in both the Senate and the House.

The bill establishes guidelines for more aggressive emission reduction policies and calls for a net-zero Ocean State by 2050. It also amends the 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act by providing updated and enforceable timelines for emissions standards, as well as emphasizing transparency and accountability.

Each chamber will now vote on the other’s version of the bill. If successful, they will go to Gov. Dan McKee’s desk, where he will decide whether or not to sign them into law.

Specifically, the Act on Climate bill describes new emission reduction targets of 35 percent by 2030, 80 percent by 2040 and net-zero by 2050.

The updated timeline for decarbonization that the bill codifies reflects current climate science, which King explains as “leaps and bounds ahead” of the science that the 2014 emission reduction timelines had been based on. She noted that net zero represents an aggressive goal but still regarded the 2050 timeline as “conservative” given that Rhode Island is “so late” to pass such legislation. But, she also noted the timing resembles that of comparable climate policy in other states such as Massachusetts.

The bill does not articulate the exact methods by which it will recognize its goals, J. Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies and sociology, wrote in an email to The Herald. He noted that while the Act on Climate bill represents a “very good start,” success is contingent on specific “plans and implementation” which “strong lobbying groups will fight” against.

As the state develops such plans, Rhode Islanders will have access to public metrics and a public dashboard that will track emission reductions and sources of energy utilized by the state. This change comes as part of a new focus on transparency which King believes “is really going to help” ensure progress going forward.

Beyond shifting the time frame for climate action, the Act on Climate bill places an emphasis on ensuring equity while expanding the green energy sector. Specifically, the bill requires the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council to develop decarbonization plans that prioritize recruiting and training those who are underrepresented in the workforce, including “women, people of color, Indigenous, veterans, formerly incarcerated people and people living with disabilities,” according to the text of the bill.

Policy Coordinator at Green Energy Consumers Alliance and Vice President of Policy at Environment Council of Rhode Island Kai Salem ’18 noted that, with this bill, “equity and justice” are “finally centered in plans for decarbonization.” Both those currently employed in the fossil fuel industry and those in underrepresented communities would receive particular attention when designing future plans to recognize climate goals, according to Salem.

Additionally, the Act on Climate bill highlights the opportunity for citizens to file civil actions against the state in the Providence Superior Court to ensure the state government abides by the guidelines laid out in the legislation. 

State Sen. Dawn Euer, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture and sponsor of the Senate bill, explained this accountability as “absolutely necessary” for the realization of emission reduction goals. 

Salem and King both expressed support for giving citizens the power to hold the state accountable for its commitment to such standards.

Now passed by both houses, the Act on Climate bill represents the culmination of years of work by numerous climate groups and activists around the state, King said. The legislation’s versions still need successful passage in the other chambers and a signature from McKee to take effect.

McKee’s spokesperson Andrea Palagi told the Boston Globe that McKee “looks forward to reviewing the legislation.”

But even if the bill is signed into law, “we are not done,” Salem said. “We still need so much legislation” to effectively act on climate change in Rhode Island.


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