Politics

When it comes to climate goals, could a little-known Mass. official hold the state’s feet to the fire?

"There's a gap between what we've promised and where we actually are."

Pedestrians stopped at Boston University Bridge to take photos of the Boston skyline as haze from California wildfires blanketed the area this past July. Christiana Botic / The Boston Globe

Whether it’s a New Year’s resolution or steps to prevent the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, everyone knows that setting the goal is the easy part.

Actually following through is where it gets questionable.

In the movement to address climate change, that reality — the gap between talk and action — has been reinforced from the recent COP26 conference to Massachusetts, where authors of the recently passed roadmap to achieve “net-zero” emissions by 2050 worry that the state is already falling behind on its goals.

Chris Dempsey, a candidate for state auditor, thinks he could fill the gap.

If elected, Dempsey says he would incorporate carbon accounting into the office’s audits of state agencies. In other words, he would use the auditor’s office to check whether agencies were making sure the sectors they regulate were meeting their emission reduction goals — and sound the alarm if they aren’t.

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According to Dempsey, no other state auditor’s office in the country has taken such an approach. However, given the sluggish but imperative effort to address climate change, the Brookline native sees it as “an essential part of the job.”

“It’s taking the central job of the state auditor, which is to be an accountability officer within the state government, and it’s applying it to one of the most pressing issues that the commonwealth faces and an area of state government where there’s a gap between what we’ve promised and where we actually are,” Dempsey said in a recent interview.

Last March, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill committing the state to incremental reductions in its overall carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050.

In an effort to ensure that overall goal is met, the new law also includes legally binding five-year goals for individual sectors — electric power, transportation, commercial buildings, homes, manufacturing, and natural gas distribution. And the agencies responsible for those sectors can be sued for missing those sub-goals if the state falls behind on its overall emission reduction targets.

While the state auditor doesn’t have any enforcement power, Dempsey says the office could draw attention to agencies that aren’t doing enough, which would induce outside groups, such as environmental nonprofits, to bring legal action.

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“It’s about using the bully pulpit of the office to be an advocate for change within government,” Dempsey said. “And we know that, in particular, the executive branch is not doing enough to move quickly.”

In September, The Boston Globe reported that, already, some of the lawmakers who wrote the 2050 climate bill had concerns that the state wasn’t moving fast enough.

Dempsey points to the transportation sector, the state’s largest source of carbon emissions — and one that has actually increased over the past few decades. According to Dempsey, agencies like the Department of Transportation already have sufficient tools at their disposal (in this case, he’s advocated for things like congestion pricing and increased tolls in some areas). And incorporating carbon accounting into audits could push them to act, if not also legislation or lawsuits.

“We need to elevate the conversation around carbon emissions and air pollution in the transportation policy debate,” he said. “It’s actually quite rare that the MassDOT Board of Directors talks about climate emissions and the work that they’re doing to reduce or bend that curve of emissions from transportation.”

The same approach would hold true for the Department of Public Utilities’ work to reduce emissions from the electricity grid or the Department of Housing and Community Development’s efforts to incentivize more transit-oriented and efficient buildings.

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Dempsey’s proposal also includes an auditor’s commission on environmental justice to give low-income communities and people of color — who have been disproportionately burdened by environmental pollution — a voice in the auditing process.

The policy idea comes more than nine months before the 2022 state primaries.

Dempsey, a transportation advocate and leader of the movement against Boston hosting the 2024 Olympics, is up against Methuen state Sen. Diana DiZoglio for the Democratic nomination for state auditor, an often sleepy statewide race overshadowed by the quadrennial gubernatorial election. After three terms, State Auditor Suzanne Bump is not seeking re-election.

The carbon accounting proposal, as Dempsey openly admits, is also an effort to insert climate change into the race, after “environmental champions” like Sen. Ed Markey and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu have seen the energy around the subject help boost them to victory.

“I think it’s quickly becoming a requirement and an expectation that people running for office in Massachusetts have a vision for a significant contribution that an office can make to this climate goal,” Dempsey said, adding that his record on environmental justice is one of “plenty distinctions” in the race.

One of the co-authors of the 2050 climate bill, state Rep. Joan Meschino, a Hull Democrat, called his proposal an “innovative idea,” adding that she was excited about the idea of the state auditor taking an active role around the state’s emissions mandates.

“Massachusetts passed one of the most ambitious plans in the country for getting to net zero,” Meschino said. “Now we need to identify the gaps and take action.”

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