by Tom Evslin
The Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), which was passed by the Legislature in the last session over Gov. Scott’s veto, contains a requirement that the Vermont Climate Council create a Carbon Inventory for Vermont. A draft of that inventory called Carbon Budget from a subcommittee of the Council is now available. If the full Council pays as much attention to its own carbon budget as it should, it will realize that there is a doable path to carbon neutrality which has the twin benefits of being achievable and NOT bankrupting Vermont.
Here are three headline numbers from the carbon budget:
- In 2020 it is estimated that burning of fossil fuel for energy will add 8.6 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere (MMT CO2-e).
- In 2018 (the last year we have information for), Vermont forests REMOVED 5.2 MMT CO2-e from the atmosphere. (I and others have argued that this number should be much higher but the number in the budget is estimated according to standards and methodologies which are generally accepted nationally and blessed by the UN so let’s go with it). The photosynthesis which uses sunlight to turn atmospheric CO2 into carbon which is stored in the ground, in the trunk and branches of our treesand oxygen which goes back into the air is a form of carbon sequestration.
- With other puts-and-takes, the budget estimates that current annual NET emissions – the net amount of CO2-e Vermont adds to the atmosphere – is currently “only” 5.65 MMT CO2-e.
5.65 MMT of reduction is a much easier goal to hit than 8.6. Simply increasing the amount of forested land by converting uneconomic dairy farms to trees and better management of the 75% of Vermont which is already forested would take us within spitting distance even given the conservative carbon accounting in the budget.
But what is our goal?
Section 592 of GWSA says:
The Plan shall include specific initiatives, programs, and strategies that will:
(1) reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation, building, regulated utility, industrial, commercial, and agricultural sectors;
(2) encourage smart growth and related strategies;
(3) achieve long-term sequestration and storage of carbon and promote best management practices to achieve climate mitigation, adaption, and resilience on natural working lands;
(4) achieve net [emphasis mine] zero emissions by 2050 across all sectors…
That seems to be pretty clear and has an appropriate emphasis on how we actually affect the atmosphere. However, Section 578 says:
Vermont shall reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from within the geographical boundaries of the State and those emissions outside the boundaries of the State that are caused by the use of energy in Vermont … by:
(1) not less than 26 percent from 2005 greenhouse gas emissions by January 1, 2025…
(2) not less than 40 percent from 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by January 1, 2030 pursuant to the State’s 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan; and
(3) not less than 80 percent from 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by January 1, 2050 pursuant to the State’s 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan.
Note that there is nothing in Section 578 which talks about “net” reductions. This section isn’t about effect on the atmosphere; it is about justifying huge expenditures for incentives for electric vehicles, heat pumps, solar panels, and wind turbines! If we squander money on the short-term unachievable goals of Section 578, we won’t be able to reach the long-term goals of Section 529 which are the only ones that matter if you’re concerned about the effect on climate of atmospheric CO2.
So what’s going to happen?
The Climate Council will probably make recommendations to the legislature which almost exclusively rely on elimination of fossil fuels to achieve the short-term goals as section 578 seems to require. They will largely ignore the carbon already being sequestered by Vermont forests and the potential for much more of the same.
This year the State will have enormous amounts of federal funds available for “climate change”. Instead of using those funds to make lasting change, they will be frittered away on subsidies for things like electric cars (going to happen anyway and make less difference than you would think) and cold weather heat pumps (haven’t proven effective). The funds that are doled out to favored industries won’t be available for actual long term effective reduction of emissions. Eventually the federal funds will run out and the incentive programs will either die or, worse, be replaced by mandates.
What should happen?
The Climate Council mandate allows it to suggest changes in legislation. It should suggest that the language in Section 578 be dropped since it unwisely constrains the solutions available to us and is not about actual environmental effect. It should insist that mitigation strategies and expenditures be weighed by the net amount of atmospheric CO2-e reduced per dollar spent. The Carbon Budget makes it clear we can get from here to there, that we can become carbon neutral without bankrupting the state.