Commentary

John McClaughry: Vermont's emissions problem

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John McClaughry, the vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

[L]ast September the Legislature underwrote a $120,000 contract to a Washington, D.C., firm named Resources for the Future, that specializes in analyzing the economic impact of various policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by consumption of fossil fuels. The 114-page Decarbonization Study has now been delivered.

Before summarizing its findings, let’s recall why certain organizations are so intent on driving Vermonters away from using gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, heating oil and propane.

They believe that Planet Earth is approaching a climate catastrophe caused by the humans burning these energy-rich fuels. By far the most dominant greenhouse gas is water vapor, but that can’t be controlled by driving up the price of water. So the climate alarmists – for want of a better description – are determined to defeat the menace of climate change by making humans stop burning fossil fuels.

A flat-out prohibition of these sources of energy has no prospect of happening any time soon, especially when most (though not all) climate alarmists are also dead set against nuclear electricity as the carbon-free solution that will maintain our energy-intensive 21st century civilization. They have defined their target as “GHG emissions.” Their means of reducing those emissions is to have the government drive the price of carbon-based fuels steadily higher, until most people can’t afford them anymore and will switch to something else (or move away).

Their ideal for Vermont, with one fifth of 1 percent of the U.S. population, is to become the perfect little climate-conscious state. Thanks to more building insulation, clustered dwellings, public transit, bicycles, heat pumps, biomass heat, and efficiency improvements, existing hydro plants, and much more wind and solar PV electricity, Vermont’s population will consume far less energy, and eventually zero fossil fuel energy.

The metric for climate righteousness has become the amount of carbon dioxide emissions produced by fossil fuel combustion. In 1990 Vermonters released eight million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e). At a 2005 conference of the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers, intensely midwifed by climate activists, Gov. Jim Douglas caught a serious case of emissions reduction fever.

The result was his Executive Order 07-05 of 2005, declaring Vermont’s goals to be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below the 1990 emissions level by 2012, 50 percent below by 2028, and 75 percent below (“if practicable”) by 2050. These goals were enshrined in Act 168 of 2006. The leading advocacy group, the Center for Climate Strategies, lauded Vermont for having “the nation’s most aggressive GHG reduction goals.”

By 2015, Vermont was not emitting less than the 1990 level, but 10 Mt, 16 percent above and climbing. This was embarrassing.

What followed were gubernatorial amendments to Act 168, none of which were ever voted on by elected legislators. Gov. Peter Shumlin, an ardent climate warrior, declared that, regardless of state law, the new goals would be 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80 percent below by 2050.

In June 2017 Gov. Phil Scott announced Vermont was joining the U.S. Climate Alliance, whose governor-members promise to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Clearly all the renewable energy subsidies weren’t getting the job done, although they certainly produced affluence for the renewable industrial complex.

After the heavily Democratic Legislature declined to consider the ESSEX carbon tax plan, the increasingly frustrated climate change warriors asked and got the $120,000 RFF Decarbonization Study.

Representative conclusions from the study include a finding that “emissions in Vermont have been increasing since 2011, and the state is currently well above a pathway that would meet any of its GHG emissions targets. … Vermont is unlikely to meet its emissions targets with a carbon-pricing-only strategy unless the carbon price is substantially higher than the prices modeled in this study ($19 to $77 per metric ton of CO2 equivalent in 2025).…”

“A carbon pricing policy could generate $74.7–$433.8 million in annual revenue in 2025, depending on the carbon price amount and number of sectors covered… Carbon revenue is an appealing feature of carbon pricing and can allow the state to address the negative consequences of carbon pricing, especially for low-income and rural households.”

Overall, the study found, there is a combination of carbon pricing, which it carefully avoids characterizing as a tax, and non-price policies that can lead to positive outcomes, if environmental benefits from reducing carbon combustion are added in.

The study candidly observes that “the success of Vermont’s decarbonization strategy will depend on the extent to which it drives action in other states or other countries … if Vermont’s policy leadership were to inspire increased leadership and policy innovation in other states or nations — it would indeed amount to a significant impact.”

There is much, much more in this capably produced study. The ultimate question legislators need to wrestle with now is, how much expense, disruption and grief are Vermonters willing to endure to produce no detectable effect on global climate, but only this symbolic triumph?


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