Taking action to curb carbon emissions could save Vermonters almost $800 million over the next 15 years, according to a new report from the Energy Action Network.
But doing so would require significant changes in consumer behavior, like halting the purchase of new gas or diesel vehicles.
The analysis came in an annual report released Wednesday tracking Vermont’s progress in meeting emissions reductions and renewable energy goals. Neale Lunderville, former Burlington Electric Department general manager, referred to the report put out by the network of nonprofits, businesses and state agencies as the “Dow Jones of our fight against climate change.”
“This transition is not a sacrifice, it is an opportunity with great economic benefit for both individual Vermonters and the state economy,” said Jared Duval, director of the Energy Action Network.
The state needs “comprehensive” policies and regulations to reduce emissions in transportation and heating, which account for around 70% of emissions, says the report. Multiple speakers stressed that the transition off fossil fuels needs to be “equitable” for all Vermonters, which the report says will require incentives and low-interest financing for low and moderate income Vermonters.
While Vermont’s greenhouse gas pollution went down slightly in 2016 — the latest year for which state data are available — the Green Mountain State is lagging behind the rest of the Northeast and Quebec, according to the report.
Gov. Phil Scott was one of 24 governors to recommit to the Paris Agreement after Trump pulled out, meaning Vermont is supposed to reduce emissions by 25% below 2005 levels.
But Vermont now has the highest per capita emissions of New England and New York, and has made the least progress toward the Paris Agreement goals. Many of the reductions other states have seen in their heating sectors is due to the expansion of natural gas infrastructure, which is not favored by climate activists because of methane leaks during the fracking process.
The Agency of Commerce and Community Development analyzed the economic impacts of a series of proposed measures for meeting the Paris Agreement for the report, like adding more 86,000 more electric vehicles on the road and over 78,000 heat pump water heaters. The agency found that those steps would decrease out-of-state spending by more than $1 billion and invest $323 million in Vermont’s economy over the next 15 years.
Duval said that the conversation around energy has been “backwards for too long,” with people asking how much it would cost to switch off fossil fuels rather than asking what the economic benefits and overall savings could be in doing that.
“The majority of Vermonters will save money by weatherizing their homes, by buying an EV (electric vehicle) instead of a gas powered vehicle,” said Lunderville. “And by making smart choices on how to heat the water and heat their homes …Vermonters don’t have to choose between getting real economic benefits and reducing their reliance on fossil fuels.”
While Duval stressed that EAN does not endorse specific policies, all the case studies highlighted in the report included an emissions cap or a renewable technology standard beyond what is currently in place in Vermont. For example, Norway put in place a requirement that all new vehicles sold must be “zero emissions” starting in 2025. The Scandinavian country put in place measures like electric vehicle incentives for lower income people and a combined sales tax exemption for EVs with progressively higher taxes for more polluting vehicles — called a “feebate.” As of 2017, Norweigans purchased more electric vehicles than gas and diesel cars.
When asked whether the Legislature has the appetite for such measures, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said that there was an “ongoing discussion” in Senate Transportation about a feebate program following a report on the matter from the state Agency of Transportation.
“I would say that the conversations are in their infancy, but it’s an area that I think we all have to grapple with that can help drive us to more efficient vehicles,” he said.
Climate policy has been center stage this session, with the House passing the Global Warming Solutions Act, which would turn the state’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals into legally enforceable mandates. The House has also passed a series of updates to Act 250 that include requirements for climate change adaptability in new developments.
The Vermont Senate has been working on proposals this session to increase renewable energy requirements for electrical utilities and to put more efficiency dollars toward transportation and heating efficiency.
The Senate Transportation Committee has been grappling with how to move ahead with a regional cap and trade emissions reduction effort known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI).
The goal of the program, which is modelled after a similar effort in the electric sector, is to cap greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The final TCI agreement is not expected to come out until after the session adjourns. Signing on to TCI could provide Vermont with an estimated $18 million-$66 million in the first year of the program for emissions reductions efforts.
The Senate will consider an amendment to authorize the governor to sign onto TCI if Massachusetts and New York join, but the timing is unclear as the Legislature recesses amid coronavirus containment concerns. Ashe said that his committee has heard that if most of the region is in the TCI, then related gas price increases would be felt in Vermont whether or not it participates.
While Duval said that it would take “carrots and sticks” — or incentives and regulations, to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, Gov. Phil Scott has expressed reservations about emissions reductions mandates.
On Wednesday, Peter Walke, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation and Scott’s lead on climate matters said that “the governor is pretty clear about his preference for the carrots.”
DISCLOSURE: Neale Lunderville is on the board of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization of VTDigger.org.