Maryland just passed one of the most aggressive climate laws in the US

The landmark legislation targets net-zero carbon by 2045 and takes decisive action on building decarbonization and environmental justice.

The Maryland state flag flies in front of the Maryland state legislature building
(Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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Maryland has become the latest state to mandate an end to carbon emissions on a net basis economywide by midcentury, targeting electricity generation, building heating and transportation. The package also incorporates environmental-justice provisions. Backers are calling it one of the country’s most aggressive climate change laws. 

The Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022 became law after Maryland Republican Governor Larry Hogan, who had opposed the bill on the grounds that it would increase energy costs in the state, declined to take action on the bill on Friday. The bill was passed by veto-proof majorities in the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature, making it likely that an attempt to veto it would have been overturned.

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Hogan had attacked the bill as a reckless and controversial energy tax” on Maryland residents at a time of rising energy prices. His fellow Republicans in the legislature argued that the state isn’t large enough to make an appreciable dent in global warming and should not take on the costs of transitioning the state economy to net-zero emissions.

A nonpartisan analysis of the bill’s costs and benefits found that it might increase energy costs over the short term but could also yield long-term energy savings.

But the bill’s backers cited the global and local risks of climate change — sea-level rise, more extreme storms, heat waves and drought — as strong reasons to act at the state level. 

It really is starting with small steps,” state Sen. Paul Pinsky (D), the bill’s sponsor, said in March. The only way for us to move forward is to do what we can do in our state.”

The law increases Maryland’s target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 60 percent below 2006 levels by 2031, up from a previous target of 40 percent by 2030 set in 2016. It also sets a 2045 deadline for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the state’s economy. 

At least 16 U.S. states have laws or executive orders that have set targets for net-zero carbon emissions from electricity generation, but only a handful of them have gone beyond electricity to set economywide emissions-cut targets, including California, New York and Washington state. Even among states with economywide targets, Maryland’s law stands out as aggressive, with a faster timeline than both New York and Washington. 

Victoria Venable, Maryland director of the nonprofit Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said that Maryland’s net-zero-by-2045 target sets a new goal post for climate action at the state level. And while the law doesn’t codify all the policies that will be required to achieve that goal, it does set up a handful of really important foundations for actual policies that will cut those emissions,” she said. 

Buildings

One of those foundations centers on reducing energy use in buildings, she said. Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of Maryland’s carbon emissions. Most of that comes from the electricity they use, but roughly one-third of the building emissions result from direct burning of fossil fuels for heating, primarily fossil gas. 

We see the decarbonization of buildings as the next big frontier for climate action, and this bill really puts us on [track for] that journey,” Venable said. 

The law will create a building energy performance standard for the state that will require most buildings over 35,000 square feet to start reporting their direct emissions from heating, starting in 2025. Those buildings will then be required to reduce those emissions by 20 percent below 2025 levels by 2030 and to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. While certain school, agricultural, manufacturing and historically significant buildings would be exempt, others will face fines or penalties for failing to meet these targets. 

A more aggressive mandate to ban the direct use of fossil fuels in new buildings was stripped from Maryland’s legislation in the face of opposition from energy and construction companies. Such bans have been enacted by cities and counties in California, Massachusetts and Washington state, and most recently in New York City. Gas industry groups have responded by backing legislation to prohibit municipal gas bans in 20 states so far.

At the state level, New York is considering legislation that would ban fossil fuel use in buildings built after 2027, and California and Washington are enacting state building codes that will support all-electric new buildings. While Maryland’s law doesn’t go that far, Venable notes that it does lay the groundwork for more aggressive steps in the future. 

Those include mandating that a study be conducted by the state’s Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, looking at how the power grid could support the higher electricity demands that would come from a shift from fossil fuels to electricity in buildings, she said. 

Clean energy

Maryland already has a renewable portfolio standard that includes targets for clean energy supply in the state. Under a 2019 law, that target was raised to 50 percent of all electricity procured in the state by 2030, up from 25 percent. The state got about 11 percent of its power from renewable resources in 2020, two-thirds of that from hydroelectric dams, but state policy has ratcheted up targets to expand the deployment of offshore wind power to boost that total. 

The new law does not alter those renewable energy targets, but it will require the state to plan for an eventual transition to an electricity supply that zeroes out its own carbon emissions by 2045. The law sets a 2030 deadline for the state’s Department of the Environment to create a plan laying out how it will achieve its 2045 net-zero carbon goals. 

Importantly, that net-zero carbon energy mix can include clean firm power” resources such as nuclear power or power plants outfitted with carbon-capture-and-storage technologies that can provide a continuous supply of zero-carbon energy, said Angela Seligman, the U.S. state policy and advocacy manager at the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force. 

Maryland gets about 41 percent of its electricity from the in-state Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, and the state is part of the broader transmission market of grid operator PJM, which contains many more nuclear plants. The new law recommends policy efforts to explore extending the operating licenses of zero-carbon resources within the state, including Calvert Cliffs, which is now licensed to continue operating at its current capacity through 2034. Nuclear power faces strong opposition from some environmental groups concerned about the danger of accidents and the challenges of finding long-term storage solutions for spent nuclear fuels.

The law allows the use of carbon capture, energy storage and grid infrastructure upgrades as emissions-reduction measures, but only if the technology has been scientifically proven to achieve verifiable carbon reductions.” Carbon-capture projects at existing fossil-fueled power plants have not yet demonstrated that existing technologies can cost-effectively eliminate emissions at scale. 

Still, the Clean Air Task Force sees the inclusion of these technologies as a sound policy approach aimed at delivering net-zero emissions at the least cost and [with] the ability to maintain a reliable grid,” Seligman said. 

Zero-emissions transportation

Transportation accounts for roughly one-third of energy consumption in Maryland. The newly passed climate law doesn’t set specific targets for reducing emissions from this sector, but it does set a goal of converting the state government’s passenger vehicle fleet to 100% zero-emissions vehicles by 2031, with its light-duty vehicle fleet following suit by 2036

This helps to show industry that this transition is happening,” Seligman said. It also helps set up infrastructure” because a growing fleet of state-owned electric vehicles will spur the installation of EV-charging infrastructure. A separate bill passed last year extends tax incentives and grants for zero-emissions vehicle purchases by the private sector, she said. 

But another proposed bill that would have set targets for requiring a rising percentage of medium- and heavy-duty trucks sold in Maryland to be zero-emissions vehicles — as states including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington have done — failed to make it out of committee during this year’s legislative session, she said. 

Environmental justice

Major climate laws passed in states including Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts and Oregon over the past year have included provisions aimed at easing the economic dislocations that will accompany the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. These laws have also targeted funding and support toward communities that have borne the brunt of the economic and health harms of polluting industries, many of them lower-income communities and communities of color. 

Similar environmental-justice language, which was incorporated relatively late in the legislative session, is a really important addition” to Maryland’s new climate law, Seligman said. That language includes creating a state-level working group to address the employment and retraining needs of workers and businesses in the fossil fuel industry. 

The law also creates the Climate Catalytic Capital Fund, a state green bank” that will fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions with a budget of $5 million per year from 2024 to 2026, she said. At least 40 percent of the investments from the fund will be directed to communities with low- or moderate-income households. 

One achievement of the newly passed law is the legal definitions of what constitutes overburdened” and underserved” communities that it establishes, Venable said. These terms apply to communities that have been disproportionately harmed by pollution or have a large portion of nonwhite or lower-income residents, respectively, and are a major focus of environmental-justice policy. 

Until you have a statutory definition and establishment of criteria for those communities, it’s really hard to target benefits” to them, she said. These two different terms can now be used for laws in the future that target funds to help cut emissions and increase the health of the community.” 

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media.