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How Vermont is — and isn’t — on track to reduce its share of climate-warming emissions

A rectangular solar panel sits atop a metal arm, among a sea of solar panels in a field of grass. Above, the sky is cloudy, with bits of blue here and there.
Associated Press File
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A recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change finds the world still has time to avoid the worst of climate change, but only if nations come together to cut greenhouse gas emissions much faster than they have.

But it also says it’s very possible to fix the problem, and local and state governments have a critical role to play. So, how do Vermont’s efforts here stack up?

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with VPR climate and environment reporter Abagael Giles about Vermont's efforts to address climate change. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So what did this latest IPCC report say? 

Agagael Giles: Well Mitch, it’s nothing scientists haven’t been saying for a long time. But importantly, this is the last time that they say they’ll be giving advice about how to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

That’s the sweet spot, where scientists say we can still, in the long term, reverse some of the worst impacts of global warming — things like sea level rise and flooding, extreme heat, weather events.

More about the difference between weather and climate, here.

Climate science is sort of like a choose your own adventure book. Where the science says if you do this, you might see this range of outcomes. So right now, we are not choosing that 1.5 degrees Celsius adventure.

“The IPCC says we need to reach net zero emissions, meaning we’re taking out as much emissions as we’re putting into the atmosphere, by 2050. And in Vermont, the long-term goal isn’t as strong.”
Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists

We’re on a path to 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming. And that outcome has more wildfires, more floods, more droughts, lots of human loss.

And in Vermont, we're actually warming faster than the globe on average.

So how does the report recommend we get to that sweet spot you talked about that represents a sustainable environment? 

Basically, the world’s energy supply needs to reach net-zero by 2050. More renewables — which the report finds are fast becoming more cost-effective globally than fossil fuels.

More from VPR: Reporter debrief: Vermont's new climate assessment finds the state is warming faster than previously thought. What does that mean?

Local governments need to contribute to that, mostly by changing the way people work, live and eat, heat their homes and how they get around, but also development patterns — things like zoning.

Well then, what about Vermont — where do we fit in this picture?

Right now, Vermont is one of 14 states that have put their greenhouse gas emissions targets into law.

The first deadline is in 2025, and they get steeper through 2050. By then, we have to reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels.

More from VPR: Vermont just adopted a Climate Action Plan. Here's how it says we should reduce emissions.

Now in the short term, Vermont’s targets line up pretty closely with what the latest IPCC report calls for.

Julie Moore is secretary of natural resources for Vermont and she says that was deliberate:

“Those targets are a reflection of both commitments made in the Paris Climate Accords, as well as other goals that have previously been in state statute, but that have their origin story in work that’s been done by the IPCC.”

But in the long term, our commitments are a little soft.

Here’s Kristina Dahl, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists:

“The IPCC says we need to reach net-zero emissions, meaning we’re taking out as much emissions as we’re putting into the atmosphere, by 2050. And in Vermont, the long-term goal isn’t as strong.”

Vermont’s law kind of sets that as a goal, not a statutory requirement.

Well then, how are we doing when it comes to meeting the targets we’ve committed to as a state? Are we going to meet them and what happens if we don’t?

This year, Vermont put together its first ever Climate Action Plan. It’s basically a roadmap for how we’re going to meet our short term emissions reductions, and stay on track for 2050.

But pretty much all the emissions slashing policies in there have to get approved by the Legislature and governor.

More from VPR: Poll finds most Vermonters expect major impacts from climate change in the next 30 years

The really big ones are cars and home heat. Those are going to be our biggest challenges here in Vermont.

If we don’t stay on schedule, the agency of natural resources has to step in and make new regulations to get us there. Otherwise, Vermonters can sue their government. And the Union of Concerned Scientists says we’re the only state in the country with this kind of accountability measure explicitly called out in statute — though citizens in Maine and Massachusets are also able to sue.

Well that sounds like good news, but I have to ask this question, Abagael, and it’s kind of a tough one. Realistically speaking, Vermont is a small state — one of the smallest. Does it really matter what we do?

It’s true! In the grand scheme of things, Vermont’s total emissions are small relative to the world or even big states. But Vermonters rank 43rd in the country for per capita energy consumption. We drive more miles per capita than any other New England state.

So on a per capita basis, you might say we’re contributing more than our fair share to global warming. Here’s Kristina Dahl again, with the Union of Concerned Scientists:

“I think it’s important for states to be exceeding the IPCC recommendations whenever they can because of our country’s historically high per capita emissions and our contribution to the problem over the last century and a half, we have an outsized responsibility to be contributing to the solutions.”

“The Legislature and governor needs to be thinking wholesale about climate action funding, long term.”
Jane Lazorchak, Global Warming Solutions Act director

And another thing the report points out: it’s more affluent states and countries that are emitting the most – and also more affluent people. They travel more, buy more things. So if you have the means, you can make a big difference with individual choices.

In Vermont and everywhere, it’s the folks with the least economic and political power who are already experiencing the first impacts of flooding, drought, urban heat, bad mud seasons to name a few examples.

You’ve been following closely what lawmakers in Montpelier are doing. What can we expect to see? 

I’ve heard climate advocates say: this is the biggest year for climate policy in the Statehouse in decades, maybe ever. Lawmakers are seriously weighing Act 250 reform and changes to the current use program to support landowners to let their trees grow old to soak up carbon from the atmosphere.

There’s an environmental justice policy, and the Clean Heat Standard, millions for weatherizing homes and getting electric vehicles on the road. In fact, Mitch, all new cars sold in Vermont will be electric vehicles by 2035 — that’s new this year.

More from VPR: Vermont's House passes Clean Heat Standard — major climate bill aimed at reducing emissions from buildings

The Legislature and governor are proposing historic spending on climate to the tune of nearly $200 million.

But there’s also some concern that we aren’t really planning for the future, that this welcome one-time money won’t get us to 2050 alone. Here’s Global Warming Solutions Act Director Jane Lazorchak:

“The Legislature and governor needs to be thinking wholesale about climate action funding, long term.”

Lastly, we don’t yet know how much carrying out the Climate Action Plan is going to cost. But those numbers are due at the end of the month.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles @AbagaelGiles.

Corrected: April 20, 2022 at 1:00 PM EDT
A previous version of this story reported Vermont ranked 43rd in the country for per capita emissions. Vermont ranks 43rd in the country for per capita energy consumption.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station WBUR...as a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate change and environment reporter. She joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
Karen is Vermont Public's Managing Producer of Morning News. She manages the morning news content on broadcast and digital platforms, and works with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb to bring listeners the latest news and information, along with relevant interviews. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She produces the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke. Karen recently worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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