by Suzanna Jones
The Affordable Heat Act is currently making its way through the legislature. The stated goal of the bill is to reduce Vermont’s carbon emissions. It is an industry-driven measure that, if passed, will use market forces to induce Vermonters to abandon heating sources other than electric, with the costs unjustly passed on to homeowners and small businesses. Once again, a tremendous burden will be placed on working and poor people.
The bill is built upon a credit trading scheme, which, like the Renewable Energy Credits, obfuscates emissions on paper while allowing polluting and profiting to proliferate. Nowhere in the bill is reduction in energy use directly encouraged.
Well intentioned as it may be, this bill would further our dependence on a profit-driven system that is failing us (power outages, anyone?) while largely neglecting the real needs of the biosphere. It enables us to believe we are addressing climate change, while we deceive ourselves about the necessary economic sacrifices we all must make.
The Senate is mandated to follow the emission reduction goals set by the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). However, the metrics used by that act are selective and questionable. These need to be remedied before lawmakers consider any legislation to lower carbon emissions.
There are two primary methods of carbon accounting: sector-based and consumption-based. The GWSA used sector-based carbon accounting, which measures emissions only from activities that occur within Vermont, in the sectors of transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, etc. If we purchase something made in Vermont, the emissions connected to it are accounted for. But – and here’s the problem – if we purchase something from California or China, the emissions to produce it and transport it to Vermont are ignored.
Consumption-based accounting, by contrast, considers the total carbon embedded in products and services that Vermonters use, no matter their origin.
What difference does it make which accounting system is used? A study by the state of Oregon concluded that its consumption-based emissions are almost 50% greater than their sector-based emissions. It’s safe to assume that number would be at least that or even higher in Vermont because we import so much of what we consume, and export relatively little.
Sector-based accounting, in other words, leaves consumption out of the picture — so some of us can still get on a plane in July to go skiing in South America, with the emissions unaccounted for and guilt-free. It also makes it appear that local products emit carbon while imports don’t. All of this is absurd. According to this logic Vermont should just import everything and we would have magically “reduced our emissions”. Sector-based accounting for emissions is a faulty premise on which to determine policy, and the Vermont Climate Council should revise the metrics it uses. This would mean fewer profit opportunities for Green Mountain Power, and others that stand to profit if S5 passes, but it would enable policymakers to make more effective decisions. Honestly calculating our emissions using a consumption-based method would make it clear that our emissions depend not just on what fuel we use to heat our homes and power our vehicles, but on our overall levels of consumption.
What can be done to meaningfully reduce emissions? This is challenging for a number of reasons. Conventional economists tell us that a healthy economy needs to grow, and policymakers actually encourage consumption as a way to keep GDP increasing. But it’s becoming clearer that GDP growth doesn’t correspond to a rising quality of life — often the opposite is true. Using alternative measures of societal health – like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) – would enable policymakers to choose paths that improve well-being without increasing consumption. Although measuring Vermont’s GPI annually was mandated by the Legislature in 2012, it has never been implemented.
Another hurdle to reducing consumption — especially among the “polluting elite”, as they are now known – is that the wealthy wield more political power than the rest of us. Their interests often align with the corporations and developers that, in many cases, are the source of their wealth. Campaign donations and hired lobbyists ensure that the consumption machine runs unimpeded.
A more fundamental problem is that we rarely look at the crises we face from the perspective of the biosphere. The natural world thrives when our modern way of life is scaled back, as we found during pandemic lockdowns. To slow or reverse our environmental impacts (of which climate chaos is just one), it is this way of life that we must stop, no matter how challenging that is to our sense of entitlement. (Yes, I am looking at you, climate warriors in the statehouse sporting Caribbean tans this week.)
We need a conservation ethic — one which encourages us to drastically reduce our overuse of, and impact on, everything. And we need to stop trying to protect a way of life that depends on economic growth, extraction and exploitation. That is what’s killing the planet.
Facing this is our greatest challenge.
The author lives off the grid in Walden