One of the many things that make me proud to be a Vermonter is the willingness of so many thoughtful and experienced people to work for the greater good. The Vermont Climate Council is one example. Established by the Legislature in 2020, the 23-member climate council (including representatives from agriculture, business, utilities, nongovernmental organizations, state agencies and municipal governments) is charged with developing a climate action plan this year that will serve as a road map to achieve meaningful greenhouse gas reductions in Vermont.
Vermont is certainly not immune from the impacts of the climate crisis. Our winters are getting warmer and shorter. We get more rain, more droughts and more intense storms. Since 2000, Vermont has had more than one federally declared disaster per year and Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, faced four of its five largest severe weather recovery events in the last five years.
We have a significant role to play to address this global problem. Vermont can and does great things when we work together. We often act as a crucible for big ideas in part because our small size gives us an advantage in convening stakeholders and soliciting public input. And make no mistake, this critical work is broadly supported by Vermonters. A December 2019 poll showed that nearly 80% of Vermonters, from every county and all walks of life, want our state to meet its climate targets. We simply can’t wait any longer — climate change is already affecting us profoundly.
Thankfully, there are already well developed strategies that can help us meet this moment. Two approaches that should be incorporated into the Vermont Climate Council’s climate action plan are the Transportation and Climate Initiative — given that transportation is the largest source of pollution in Vermont, generating about 44% of our total greenhouse gas emissions — and modernizing Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard.
The Transportation and Climate Initiative is a regional collaboration of Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia that seeks to improve transportation options and reduce the carbon emissions produced by our current transportation system. It would cap emissions from the transportation sector and provide needed revenue (between $20 million and $60 million per year) to ensure equitable access to clean transportation, improve our transportation infrastructure, grow our rural economy with expanded rural transit routes, provide electric vehicle incentives, develop our EV charging infrastructure, expand park-and-rides, and more.
Vermont should sign on to be a part of this initiative, or risk bearing the costs without receiving any of the benefits of the shared revenue among signatories to the initiative. It is based on the successful model employed by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has resulted in transformative investments in energy efficiency, reducing our emissions and saving Vermonters money.
Vermont’s Climate Action Plan should also include recommendations on how to improve the state’s renewable energy standard to make it easier for Vermonters and Vermont communities to generate their own renewable electricity. The standard was created to establish minimum thresholds of renewable energy for Vermont utilities to include in their supply mix. It was designed to ramp up over time.
Right now, Vermont’s in-state renewable energy generation is about 2.2% and it is scheduled to gradually ramp up to 10% by 2030. In light of the latest dire predictions on the accelerating pace of climate change this is far too little far too late. We need a renewable energy standard that aggressively increases our annual in-state renewable energy production and we need to do this much faster if we are to meet our pollution reduction targets.
Furthermore, unlike any other state in New England, Vermont’s renewable energy standard allows utilities to meet their renewable energy requirements with imported, large-scale hydropower. By purchasing this electricity from old existing generators, we don’t reduce global carbon emissions at all. We just shift our energy impacts to projects that have had profound impacts on Indigenous communities. Understand that Hydro Quebec flooded a region the size of Vermont, and displaced entire communities.
We need to add new renewable energy generation locally, not continue to export the harms of our energy use to those outside our borders. A recent VT Digger article explained why no other New England state counts large-scale hydro as renewable energy. Vermont shouldn’t either.
In Vermont. we created the whole locavore movement and for good reason. When we spend our dollars locally, we are investing in our local economy. Vermonters import 100% of the oil and gas we consume. That means every year, the $1.5 billion that Vermonters spend on oil and gas leaves the Vermont economy for good.
Imagine what we could achieve if we invested even a portion of these dollars on electrifying our transportation infrastructure and powering that with locally produced renewable energy. Smart investments in Vermont’s clean energy future will create jobs, improve public health and reduce electricity rates for everyone on the grid.
We know some of the solutions needed to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and protect our communities. All that is missing is the will (and accompanying resources) to implement them. By investing in local solutions, we can create economic opportunity for Vermonters, while reducing our reliance on the fossil fuels that cause climate pollution in the first place.
With the Climate Council’s work this year and federal recovery money flowing into the state, Vermont has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in an energy future that will benefit all Vermonters and establish a solid foundation for our state’s rural economy. We must not miss this chance.