You know that sinking feeling? The one where you think you’ve done a good job, but it turns out you didn’t. That’s the boat Vermont finds itself in right now when it comes to tackling climate change. We thought we were leading. But in fact we are falling behind.
Polluting greenhouse gasses — mostly from burning fossil fuels like oil and gas — are the biggest source of the toxic air pollution that causes climate change. And Vermont has been releasing more and more of it recently. The ongoing droughts, wildfires, severe storms, rising sea levels, deadly heat waves, storm washouts, and more lake pollution here in Vermont all show the urgency to cut back our fossil fuel use. We know it is not somebody else’s problem and not a problem for another time. We all must do our part now.
A decade ago, Vermont set bold goals to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Those goals called for slashing emissions 25 percent by 2012; 50 percent by 2028 and 75 percent by 2050. Vermont’s statutes also called on Vermont agencies to reduce harmful climate pollution and require utilities to increase their use of renewable energy sources like solar and wind for electricity.
When combined with increasing opportunities for Vermonters to use solar energy for their homes and businesses, and incentives to use and charge electric vehicles, we should be well on our way to meeting these ambitious goals.
But we’ve missed the mark — by a lot. The most recent greenhouse gas inventory from Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources shows that instead of being 25 percent to 50 percent below 1990 levels, pollution has increased 16 percent. This inventory provides a startling report card: Vermont gets an F. What we have been doing isn’t working, and lofty goals alone are not enough. Consider this, as per-capita climate pollution in the United States is falling, it’s on the rise in Vermont.
On the heels of this disturbing news, the governor’s hand-picked Climate Action Commission issued a lengthy report with recommendations to reduce pollution, save money and grow the economy. Unfortunately, their list is long on rhetoric and short on effective action. It is a compilation of underwhelming baby steps that are not on par with the challenge. Most of the specific recommendations recycle actions already underway — like work weatherizing homes and supporting electric vehicles with Volkswagen settlement money.
When what we are doing isn’t working, doing more of the same only kicks the can further down the road.
Completely missing from the commission’s recommendations are the ones the public clamored for, like putting a price on carbon pollution, limiting new fossil-fuel pipelines, or going 100-percent renewable.
Vermont’s rise in pollution demands stronger action. A good place to start would be to make a much stronger commitment to reducing our greenhouse-gas pollution. The goals we set are not enough. Other New England states — including Massachusetts and Connecticut — have a Global Warming Solutions Act that requires specific reductions in emissions and requires permitting and programs to achieve those reductions.
Being held to a high standard, instead of relying on goals and hoping it happens, provides motivation and spurs creative solutions. It could be the impetus for Vermont to take the bolder, more meaningful action needed.
Vermont already requires our electric utilities to increase renewable energy and reduce fossil fuel use. Two utilities even exceed those standards and are now 100 percent renewable. We need to broaden that effort and require bolder action in other areas — like transportation and heating — that fully meets our targets and holds polluters accountable.
The recent report card is a wakeup call. We all lose by continuing on our current path or accepting weak progress while we watch more missed milestones pile up.
Sandra Levine is a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier.