Advocates of Maryland’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions have mostly touted the potential benefits of fighting climate change, improving air quality and boosting public health. But a newly released working draft of a plan to reduce those emissions acknowledges that some of the gains could spill over into another one of the state’s top environmental missions: cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

The Moore administration in June unveiled a wide-ranging plan to achieve a 60% cut in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2031. And it is possible for the state to reach its far more arduous net-zero target by 2045, the report’s authors suggest, but only by incorporating efforts to produce “negative” emissions.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a member of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, shares her opinion during a July 2023 public input session at Bowie State University for the state’s proposed “climate pathway” for meeting its greenhouse gas-reduction goals. Credit: Jeremy Cox

Such reductions will require an “all-of-society” effort, according to the 118-page analysis led by the University of Maryland’s Center for Global Sustainability. Suggested actions include increasing the state’s reliance on renewable energy sources, supporting the transition to electric vehicles, requiring higher efficiency standards in new buildings and expanding the state’s cap-and-trade market for carbon emissions.

The report, Maryland’s Climate Pathway, isn’t formally connected to the multi-state and federal Bay restoration effort, known as the Chesapeake Bay Program. It owes its existence instead to the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022, which, among other things, required the Maryland Department of the Environment to adopt an emissions-reductions plan by the end of this year.

Yet, the climate report demonstrates that the work to limit emissions intersects with improving the health of the Bay on several fronts.

“There are a lot of places where those could overlap and support each other,” said Kathleen Kennedy, a University of Maryland professor and lead author of the report.

Take agriculture. Farmers have “already taken significant action” to reduce emissions by following the state’s Bay-related protocols, according to the report. These actions produced a 5% emissions reduction in the sector from 2006, Maryland’s starting point for all emission calculation, through 2020.

Some of those cuts, for example, involve improving soil health. Under the Bay cleanup, practices such as limiting the use of fertilizer in the winter and planting cover crops have been encouraged to reduce the amount of excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil. Rains can wash those nutrients into the Bay, where they fuel algae blooms that cause oxygen-starved “dead zones.” Rain can also cause nitrogen to be released into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

Forests also play a key role in both the Chesapeake and climate campaigns. The Bay Program has set goals of increasing forest buffers along waterways to help filter silt-laden stormwater and expanding urban tree canopy to improve air quality and wildlife habitat.

Meanwhile, forests represent the state’s largest carbon sink — meaning that they absorb more of the greenhouse gas than they release.

“If a tree is growing, it’s building carbon in its bark, and that carbon comes from carbon dioxide it brings in from the atmosphere,” Kennedy said. “Basically, you’re storing that carbon in the plant.”

The report cites coastal wetlands and underwater grasses for their potential to store carbon as well. “Protecting coastal ecosystems … will therefore not only promote ecosystem health, but can also achieve emissions reductions,” the authors wrote.

The computer modeling conducted by Kennedy and her team suggests that the net-zero target for 2045 will have to incorporate more of these “natural” sinks. In fact, they account for nearly half of the 20 million metric tons of “negative” emissions — greenhouse gases saved from the atmosphere — needed to reach that goal.

Environmentalists have long advocated for the “synergies” between a healthy Bay and climate-friendly policies. Doug Myers, a Maryland-based scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that meeting the tandem goals will be difficult because the state is behind on fulfilling several of the Bay-related goals in the report, including planting trees and expanding forest buffers.

He urged the state to take a page from the Bay Program’s playbook by requiring progress reports every two years or so. Without those, “you could go all the way to 2031 before you find out if you made it or not,” he said.

Under existing policies, the climate pathway report forecasts that Maryland will cut 62 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2031, falling about 11 million short of its goal. To close that gap, the report suggests making the biggest further cuts in the transportation, electric generation and building sectors.

The report makes a case for benefits extending beyond the environment. Cleaner air will result in up to $2.4 billion in health benefits, it suggests. The policy actions will also create approximately 16,000 new jobs, yielding about $1.5 billion in personal income gains by 2031.

The “climate pathway” remains a work in progress. The state Department of the Environment is hosting five in-person workshops and two virtual meetings before Sept. 26 to gather public feedback on the plan.

At the initial hearing at Bowie State University, about 50 people listened to a presentation about the plan before some took turns at microphones to share comments. Most said they supported the broad outlines of what was proposed, but they had other ideas to share.

Jose Coronado-Flores, a research and policy analyst with CASA, a Latino advocacy group, said he is concerned that the adoption of electric vehicles will face equity challenges. In Langley Park, where four-fifths of the 20,000 residents are Hispanic, vehicle chargers are few and far between, he told the officials.

“If everyone starts to transition to electric vehicles, four chargers aren’t going to be enough,” he said.

If policymakers enact new smart-growth land-use policies and carbon cap-and-trade programs, the report projects that vehicle miles traveled, a measure of car usage, will grow at a slower rate — at 0.6% annually instead of 2%. That’s not enough, said Brian O’Malley, head of the nonprofit Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

“We need this decade to make more progress,” he said, “not go further into the hole.”

This article was originally published on and is republished with permission.

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Maryland.

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