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How climate policies fared in Vermont's legislative session

A rural New England road is severely washed out and destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Toby Talbot
Associated Press
In this 2011 file photo, Route 4 near Killington is washed out and heavily damaged by Tropical Storm Irene. Vermont lawmakers made progress on climate resilience this past session, but failed to pass bills related to emissions reduction.

It was a big year in Montpelier for Vermont’s climate policies, despite the fact that the biggest climate policy of the legislative session failed. Abagael Giles, VPR’s climate and environment reporter, explained the big climate-related takeaways from the legislative session.

Overall, was the session a win for climate change policy?

It's a bit too soon to say because there are a lot of bills that still have to go to the governor. But at a big-picture level, there were some really big wins for climate resilience policy and some really big losses in terms of emissions reductions efforts.

What are some of the successful pieces of legislation around resilience?

One is the Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act. President Biden issued this executive order last year, and it set this goal to conserve 30% of all land nationwide by 2030. This bill would kind of do the same for Vermont, and then it goes further to conserve 50% of all land here by 2050.

It tasked the Agency of Natural Resources with coming up with a plan, which is due back to the legislature in 2023. The bill had bipartisan support from lawmakers. Now, it just needs a signature from the governor, but it's not clear what he's going to do.

A little context is that climate change, as it progresses, is causing this precipitous loss of diversity of life all over the world. And essentially, the science shows we need to have corridors where animals and plants can move and adapt when we see these warming temperatures that are really dramatically altering ecosystems. People hope this bill will do that in Vermont.

There were also some changes to Vermont's Act 250. What's changed?

[Act 250] is Vermont's big land-use and development law, and those changes are something lawmakers say they've struck a deal with Gov. Scott over. The idea is to make it easier for towns that already have really robust zoning bylaws to exempt affordable housing projects in their downtowns from Act 250 review. It's really getting at that idea that we need people to be able to walk and bike more and live closer to where they work.

One of the challenges is a lot of Vermont villages are actually along rivers and in flood corridors. Right now, it makes it really hard to do that sort of infill development. So there's some provisions to incentivize towns to plan and keep the sort of bad development that we don't want to see in river corridors and in floodways.

Where are we with the environmental justice bill? 

It's heading to the governor's desk. The bill proposes some really, really big changes that advocates pushed for. This bill would map environmental harm, things like pollution, urban heat, kind of the way we map natural resources now as a state, and it would audit state spending on the environment for equity.

It sets this goal to try to make sure all communities are getting their fair share of environmental spending. It actually brings people from the communities that have historically been left out of environmental decision making into the process by creating this paid panel that would sort of weigh in on future decisions by government about the environment and climate.

The clean heat standard bill died in the 11th hour. Remind us what that bill was, and will it return next session?

The clean heat standard was really aimed at cutting emissions from heating buildings, which is one of the bigger sources of emissions in Vermont. It's kind of our toughest climate challenge to fix as a state. The bill passed the House and the Senate with strong support, but Gov. Scott vetoed it. There was a veto override effort in the House that failed by one vote.

I think we'll be looking to next session for its return. But we could see something totally different on the table. And it's important to emphasize here in Vermont, that Vermont made a legal commitment with the Global Warming Solutions Act to cut greenhouse gas emissions pretty dramatically starting in 2025. And these emissions reductions aren't just laws that some people want to see pass. Vermont has these legally binding emissions reduction deadlines. The first one's coming up in 2025. We've got to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by then.

Broadcast live at noon on Tuesday, May 24, 2022; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Connor Cyrus was co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition from 2021-2023.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.