Vermonters are growing increasingly concerned about our changing climate according to a recent poll conducted for Vermont Conservation Voters in which 76% of respondents expressed concern, with more than 60% indicating they are “very worried about global warming.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as it seems a week doesn’t go by without another report being issued that finds global warming is occurring at a more rapid pace, and with greater likely impacts, than previously believed. Given the level of anxiety shared by most Vermonters, it is surprising — and extremely disappointing — that our state government has only managed to make modest steps toward reducing greenhouse gas pollution.
One bright spot in the state’s effort to combat climate change is in how we use and generate electricity. This is largely due to a number of state policies. For example, Vermont created the first energy efficiency utility — Efficiency Vermont — nearly twenty years ago to help businesses and residents adopt energy conservation measures and use electricity more efficiently.
Since Efficiency Vermont was founded, efficiency investments are estimated to have saved Vermonters $2.4 billion in energy costs and avoided 11 million tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere — the emissions-equivalent of removing 240,000 cars from the roads for 10 years.
Vermont has also made significant progress in transitioning away from relying on fossil fuels to generate electricity. Several policies have helped this transition, including the Douglas administration’s decision to join with ten other northeastern states to form the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a program that places a regional cap on the amount of CO2 pollution that power plants can emit by issuing a limited number of tradable CO2 allowances. The proceeds from the sale of those allowances are distributed to the states, where they are invested in clean energy and public health programs.
As a result of RGGI, carbon emissions from power plants have declined by 40%, while the economies of the participating states have grown by an estimated 8%, demonstrating that reducing pollution does not come at the expense of the economy.
Despite these gains, greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont have actually risen in recent years, due in large part to limited progress made on reducing emissions from the transportation and thermal (energy used to heat our homes and businesses) sectors. Fortunately, there are two opportunities to reverse this troubling trend and begin to address climate change by building on these past successes.
For the past year, several of the same states that established RGGI, including Vermont, have been exploring the possibility of joining together to form the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI), a “cap and invest” program similar to RGGI that would apply to transportation fuels. According to the draft agreement plan announced last week, TCI would place a very modest upper limit (cap) on allowable emissions from transportation fuels and use the proceeds to modernize state transportation systems.
In Vermont, that could mean expanding the program created last year with money from the Volkswagen consumer fraud settlement to help low-income Vermonters get into more-efficient electric and hybrid vehicles. It could mean expansion of transit service, the purchase of electric buses, more investment in rail, installation of more electric-vehicle charging stations in under-served areas, and building more bicycle lanes and sidewalks.
All investments would be designed to improve mobility and economic opportunity for Vermonters, while having the added, long-term benefit of keeping more money in-state, and in the pockets of Vermonters.
The TCI proposal is far from perfect. The negligible fee on transportation fuels, phased in over twelve years, will have less impact on gas prices than typical market fluctuations in any given year, but it represents an important small first step in tackling transportation emissions and could provide an important, albeit modest, investment in transforming Vermont’s transportation system to one that is cleaner, more affordable, and provides a greater range of options for travelers.
Another opportunity is pending legislation to broaden the scope of activities that Efficiency Vermont can invest in to include programs to reduce the amount of heating and transportation fuels that Vermonters use. By applying similar strategies that have resulted in significant reductions in electricity use to heating and transportation, we could expect to see not only a reduction in greenhouse pollution but, as was the case with electricity, significant cost savings for state residents and businesses.
Neither TCI, in its present form, or the expansion of Efficiency Vermont’s charge to include heating and transportation fuels, will solve the climate crisis. But, taken together, they should help the state transition to a clean-energy economy, while helping the state to do its part to take on the greatest environmental challenge we face.
Brian Shupe is the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.