Commentary

Dana Drugmand: Clean energy economy more important than ever

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Dana Drugmand, a graduate student at Vermont Law School pursing a master’s degree in environmental law and policy. She is currently interning with the Vermont Natural Resources Council in the Energy and Climate Action program.

[S]cientists at NASA and NOAA just confirmed 2016 as the hottest year on record, marking the third consecutive year that average global temperature has been off the charts. This century has seen 16 of the 17 hottest years on record, an unprecedented rate of sea ice melt and ocean acidification, and numerous billion-dollar extreme weather events. Despite the indisputable evidence of an unfolding crisis, the new Trump administration is looking to double down on dirty energy. It is imperative that states step up to the plate in advancing the transition to a clean energy economy.

Vermont and other progressive states have taken steps in this direction. But given the stark reality of our unraveling climate system, we must move beyond incrementalism and take large leaps. Fortunately, addressing climate change doesn’t have to come at the expense of jobs and economic prosperity. In reality, shifting to a green, carbon-free economy presents the biggest economic development opportunity this state, nation and world has ever seen. Global economic powerhouses, like China, realize it and are moving swiftly to significantly expand businesses in clean energy.

More than 17,700 Vermonters were employed in the clean energy sector in 2016, which has grown by 20 percent since 2013. Aggressive energy efficiency measures have slashed electric bills for all Vermont ratepayers, giving our state the second-lowest electric rates in New England. According to a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy report, weatherizing 1,000 homes for a 30 percent reduction in heating fuel use would save $800 per home in annual fuel costs. Electricity and fuel savings means less money flowing to out-of-state fossil fuel corporations. Considering Vermont spends over $2 billion per year on fossil fuels, reducing this huge expenditure through clean energy and efficiency is critical for keeping our energy dollars in state.

Climate change is here and now, and will only worsen the longer we drag our feet.

 

Accelerating this transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy demands setting a fair carbon price to reflect the damage costs associated with dirty energy. Just as smoking pollutes our bodies and endangers public health, burning fossil fuels pollutes the atmosphere and endangers public health and welfare. States imposed taxes on cigarettes as an incentive to reduce smoking, and they could do the same with carbon-based fuels. Raising the price of carbon emissions is the economically most sensible way to curb society’s addiction to fossil fuels.

Vermont already participates in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative covering the electric power sector. Yet Vermonters spend over 75 percent of their total energy costs on transportation and heating, with transportation alone accounting for 52 percent of the total. While a tax on carbon would slightly raise gas prices, it would also send a market signal incentive to expand low-carbon and public transport and to reduce unnecessary driving. Furthermore, a report by Regional Economic Models Inc. estimates that a state carbon tax could result in 31 percent emissions reduction from heating and transportation over the first 10 years while generating an additional $135 million a year in personal disposal income and creating 3,200 new jobs.

Not convinced? Consider then what is at stake if we don’t take urgent climate mitigation action. Delay means today’s young people, myself included, will be left footing an ever-increasing bill. According to one report, failing to act on climate will cost a 20-something like me who goes on to earn a median income $100,000 in lost lifetime income and $142,000 in lost wealth. The millennial generation as a whole stands to lose $8.8 trillion in lost lifetime income if we fail to act now. From a state economic perspective, Vermont could lose millions if not billions in tourist revenue due to decreased fall foliage and winter snowpack. The state’s iconic ski, maple syrup, and dairy industries are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Inaction could cost Vermont $700 million in GDP and over 5,000 jobs by 2050.

Climate change is here and now, and will only worsen the longer we drag our feet. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, Vermont ranked sixth on a per-capita spending of disaster assistance by state from 2005 to 2015. Hurricane Irene was one of the top 10 costliest hurricanes during this period, with FEMA spending over $1.6 billion on it. Overall FEMA spent more than $67 billion, roughly equivalent to $200 per U.S. resident. The point is: We are already spending taxpayer dollars on combating climate change, with the money going towards cleaning up disasters and dealing with the impacts of already-rising sea levels in some of our nation’s largest cities – all instead of trying to prevent them in the first place by slashing emissions.

This shortsighted approach is both fiscally and morally irresponsible. We can and must do better. Trump and his Cabinet of climate skeptics will try to weaken environmental protection and stymie clean energy and climate progress. It is therefore more important than ever that states lead the way to a cleaner, greener future.


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