SJC Rules State Must Set Annual Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions

sanders_dylanby Dylan Sanders

Case Focus

The state’s responsibility to confront climate change is now the subject of Massachusetts case law. In a landmark decision interpreting the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act (“GWSA”), Kain v. Department of Environmental Protection, 474 Mass. 278 (2016), the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) must impose mandatory “volumetric limits” on multiple sources of greenhouse gas emissions – meaning limits on the actual amount of greenhouse gases emitted by those sources – and that those limits must decline on an annual basis. The decision could have far-reaching implications for how the state regulates emissions in many sectors of the economy, with the SJC warning that the “act makes plain that the Commonwealth must reduce emissions and, in doing so, may, in some instances, elevate environmental goals over other considerations.” 474 Mass. at 292.


The GWSA was enacted in 2008, against the backdrop of what the SJC characterized as the “emerging consensus … that climate change is attributable to increased emissions, … [and] that national and international efforts to reduce those emissions are inadequate.” 474 Mass. at 281. Among other provisions, the GWSA required DEP to maintain an inventory of greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions in the state and to determine the statewide GHG emissions level as of 1990.

The GWSA also required the state to adopt two types of declining GHG emission limits. One relates to total emissions from all sources, while the other relates to individual sources. First, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (the “Secretary”) was required to adopt limits on the total amount of GHG emissions from all sources for 2020, 2030, 2040 and 2050, with the 2050 limit reducing overall GHG emissions in the Commonwealth by 80 percent from the 1990 level. Second, the GWSA required DEP to adopt annual declining limits on individual sources of GHG emissions, in addition to the end-of-decade limits, specifically by “establishing a desired level of declining annual aggregate emission limits for sources or categories of sources that emit greenhouse gas emissions.” This latter provision, codified at chapter 21N, § 3(d), led to the controversy that was decided in Kain.

DEP agreed that the end-of-decade limits were legally binding caps for statewide GHG emissions. However, with regard to Section 3(d)’s “declining annual aggregate emission limits” for sources of GHG emissions, DEP took the position these were aspirational “targets,” not binding caps, citing the statute’s reference to “desired” levels. Alternatively, DEP contended that several existing regulatory programs fulfilled Section 3(d)’s requirements to limit sources of GHG emissions, and that the agency need not adopt new regulations to comply with the law.

When DEP failed to adopt any new regulations on sources of GHG emissions pursuant to Section 3(d), four teenagers, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the Mass Energy Consumers Alliance sued DEP to compel it to adopt binding caps on sources of GHG emissions that declined annually. (The teenagers, two from Boston and two from Wellesley, were among scores of youth who, concerned about the impact of climate change on their future, had unsuccessfully petitioned DEP to adopt new Section 3(d) rules in 2012.) On cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings, the Superior Court ruled in favor of DEP, on the grounds that the three regulatory schemes cited by DEP fulfilled Section 3(d)’s requirements. After granting direct appellate review, the SJC reversed.

The SJC Decision

At the outset, the SJC acknowledged that DEP has wide discretion in establishing the scope of its authority, but stated that deference to DEP’s interpretation of Section 3(d) “would tend to undermine the [GWSA]’s central purpose of reducing emissions in the Commonwealth.” Id. at 287.

The Court first rejected DEP’s argument that Section 3(d) required only aspirational “targets” for limiting sources of GHG emissions, not binding caps. The Court observed that when the GWSA referred to “limits” elsewhere in the statute, DEP conceded that “limits” referred to binding caps. The Court refused to give the word “limit” a different meaning with regard to the annual limits on sources of emissions in Section 3(d). 474 Mass. at 288.

The Court also pointedly said that “a regulation, by definition, is not aspirational” and expressed doubt that the Legislature would require an agency to promulgate regulations that were merely aspirational. Finally, while DEP had stressed that the term “desired level” necessarily implied that “limits” on emissions were aspirational, the Court disagreed. The Court held that, in the context of the statute’s goal of reducing emissions in the Commonwealth, the term “desired level” meant the level of emissions from a source or category of sources that would be “suitable” to achieve the statewide GHG emissions limits. 474 Mass. at 289.

The SJC next turned to the three regulatory schemes that DEP argued fulfilled Section 3(d)’s requirements to limit sources of GHG emissions, and held that none satisfied the statute’s mandate. The first regulatory scheme limits the rate of leakage of a powerful greenhouse gas from certain electrical switch gear, with the intent of gradually reducing the leakage rate from the equipment.  The Court held that this regulatory scheme did not satisfy Section 3(d) because it established only a declining rate of emissions from sources, not a cap on the actual volume of emissions, and the amount of leaked emissions therefore could increase simply by the installation of additional equipment in a facility or in the state as a whole. 474 Mass. at 295.

As to the second regulatory scheme, the “low emission vehicle” (“LEV”) program, which also “regulates through the imposition of rates, rather than actual caps on emissions,” the SJC held it did not comply with Section 3(d)’s requirement that DEP promulgate declining volumetric emissions limits. 474 Mass. at 299. The LEV program regulates emissions based on the average emissions of each auto manufacturer’s fleet of cars. Thus, like the regulations regarding switch gear emissions, although the average rate of emissions from a vehicle fleet may decline, the total number of vehicles on the road from a manufacturer’s fleet may increase and thus the volume of emissions from those sources may increase as well. Id.

Here and elsewhere, DEP argued that it should be free to use a rate rate-based mechanism rather than a volume-based cap on emissions, because using a cap would potentially limit the actual number of emission sources. Disagreeing, the Court said the GWSA required that new or additional GHG sources must comply with a regulatory scheme that required the reduction of the actual volume of emissions. 474 Mass. at 295.

Finally, the SJC turned to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”), a regional cap and trade system for carbon dioxide emitted by power plants, pursuant to which the overall cap on emissions from plants in Massachusetts and eight other states is reduced by 2.5 percent each year. Although RGGI imposes an overall cap on carbon dioxide emissions that declines annually through 2020, the SJC held that it nevertheless did not fulfill Section 3(d)’s requirements. The Court observed that RGGI was established by a separate statute, and that the GWSA elsewhere created a separate process by which emission levels associated with the electric sector are set. Id. at 297. These factors, said the Court, indicated the Legislature did not intend for the RGGI program to be part of the Section 3(d) regulations. In addition, the Court noted that under RGGI, a Massachusetts power plant could purchase allowances from another state that would permit the Massachusetts plant to increase emissions. Accordingly, RGGI does not actually require carbon dioxide emissions from power plants located in the Commonwealth to decrease annually.

In ruling that none of the three programs proffered by DEP satisfies Section 3(d)’s requirements, the SJC acknowledged that these schemes may play important roles in achieving greenhouse gas reductions. But the SJC also repeatedly said that, because these regulatory schemes do not actually require annual decreases in the volume of GHG emissions, they simply do not require what Section 3(d) mandates.


The full import of Kain remains to be seen.  At a minimum, it requires DEP to establish annual declining volumetric limits for those sources, or categories of sources, of emissions in the GHG inventory, which will help the state achieve its 2020 and 2050 limits.  Designing programs to achieve those limits is another matter.  Moreover, the Section 3(d) regulations were supposed to take effect no later than January 1, 2013, and to sunset on December 31, 2020. The work at hand now concerns what can best be achieved in the time that remains.


Dylan Sanders practices environmental law at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, P.C., and, together with his colleague Phelps Turner, represented the four teenage plaintiffs in the Kain case.


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