Energy & Environment

New data shows Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions declining — slowly

Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions declined by an estimated 5.6% from 2016 to 2019, according to new data released this week by the state, reversing several years of rising emissions.

The trend is welcome news as the state presses forward on its carbon emissions reduction targets — which it’s legally mandated to meet. 

But there’s still a long road ahead. To meet its 2025 target, the state will need to pare down emissions another 14% from 2019 levels. It’s a mighty goal, though not impossible, said Jared Duval, executive director of the Energy Action Network.

“Meeting Vermont’s 2025 and 2030 emissions reduction requirements is achievable,” Duval said, citing his organization’s own analysis of the new data. 

“That does not mean that business as usual will get us there,” he said.

In 2020, lawmakers passed legislation requiring Vermont to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. The state must also reach 40% and 80% below 1990 levels in 2030 and 2050, respectively.

If the state fails to reach those goals, it could face lawsuits — a step that some legislators said was necessary to ensure follow-through.

The new report, which the state releases annually, provides a detailed picture of Vermont’s carbon emissions through 2017. Due to slow reporting of federal data, the inventory is not up to date. Its 2018 and 2019 figures are still projections. 

In the past, officials have raised concerns that the significant delays in reporting make it difficult to evaluate the state’s progress on emissions mandates.

Still, the data will help chart a path forward for the state’s climate policy. This year’s inventory documents a continued decline in statewide greenhouse gas emissions since 2015. In 2017, the report shows, emissions dipped to 8.67 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or 13.1% below 2005 levels. 

In 2018 and 2019, the report estimates, emissions hovered at about 14% below 2005 levels. And though the report emphasizes that longer-term projections are “fraught with uncertainties,” it estimates that in 2022, levels will reach about 9% over the 2025 mandate and remain so until 2027.

To reach the 2025 target, the state will need to buck that trend and cut emissions by an average of 160,000 tons of carbon per year.

Progress will require attention to Vermont’s heating and transportation sectors, which are responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions. 

“That is the vast bulk of our emissions,” Duval said, “and of the costs that Vermonters face for energy.”

The majority of greenhouse gas reductions since 2015 are attributed to Vermont’s electricity sector — which, due to its reliance on solar and Canadian hydropower, is now by some metrics the greenest in the nation, even if use of large hydropower comes at a cost. In 2017, electric generation made up just 6% of carbon emissions in Vermont, in contrast to 28% of carbon emissions nationally.

But that also means that continued reductions in electricity sector emissions have diminishing returns. Combined, transportation and heating now account for 70% of Vermont’s carbon emissions. 

And progress at cutting emissions in those sectors has been slow, the new data shows. Emissions from Vermont’s commercial and residential heating stayed level from 2016 to 2017 and then rose an estimated 8% by 2019. Transportation emissions, meanwhile, declined slightly from 2015 to 2017 but have remained level since.

In comparison, emissions from Vermont’s electricity sector declined an estimated 87% from 2015 to 2019, from 1 million tons annually to 130,000.

“That’s not by accident,” said Johanna Miller, energy and climate program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “It’s because we regulate the electric sector in a different way than we regulate the liquid fuels sector.” 

Since 2017, Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard has required utilities to purchase the majority of their energy from renewable sources. So far, transportation and heating lack such robust policy. 

That could shift, Miller said, with this year’s transportation bill. The legislation includes a plan for electrifying public buses and funds additional incentives for the use of electric vehicles and e-bikes.

As a rural state, Vermont faces significant challenges in electrifying its transportation. It records more annual vehicle miles traveled per capita than any state in New England.

But even as transportation and heating emissions remain “stubbornly high,” Duval said, Vermont’s relatively clean electric grid gives the state an edge. “You get a bigger bang for your buck, a double impact, from electrifying the transportation and heating sectors here than anywhere else,” he said.

“I think that enables us to make really rapid, significant progress,” he said, a “silver lining,” as 2025 approaches.

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Katya Schwenk

About Katya

A native Vermonter, Katya is assigned to VTDigger's Burlington Bureau. She is a 2020 graduate of Georgetown University, where she majored in political science with a double minor in creative writing and Arabic. She was a contributing writer for the Indypendent in New York, an assistant editor at the Boston Review and a writer for the Scoop News Group and Morocco World News in Rabat. 

Email: [email protected]

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