If Vermont hopes to reach its mandated climate goals, it will need to make drastic changes to its transportation and heating sectors, according to the Energy Action Network.
Each year, the organization’s annual report evaluates Vermont’s progress toward the state’s carbon emissions reduction targets, which it’s legally required to meet. This year’s report, which was published Tuesday, includes a pathway to the state’s looming 2025 target, which it says is still within reach.
But major change is needed to get there. According to the report’s model, one pathway to the state’s 2025 goal would require multiplying the number of electric vehicles on the streets tenfold compared to 2018 numbers and weatherizing an additional 50,000 homes — alongside other action.
“Meeting these emissions reduction requirements is not just a responsibility. It’s also a major opportunity,” said Jared Duval, executive director of the Energy Action Network.
“I think what we need to make sure that we do is reduce emissions in a way that is going to improve the lives of Vermonters and strengthen Vermont,” he said. “I think what the report shows is that there are many ways to do that.”
The state has committed to paring its carbon emissions down to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025 and 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 — and it could face lawsuits if it fails to meet those targets.
Though recent data from the state shows that carbon emissions are now declining after years of increasing emissions, that decline is primarily due to changes in the state’s electricity portfolio — particularly, the state’s increasing reliance on large hydropower from HydroQuebec, which some environmentalists say is “greenwashing.”
The electricity sector now represents just a small fraction of Vermont’s in-state emissions: 6%, according to the state’s most recent data.
To make real strides toward the emissions targets, according to the Energy Action Network, the state must look to other sectors. Combined, transportation and heating accounted for 70% of emissions in 2017. In the network’s model, those two sectors account for 93% of emissions reductions.
The roadmap shows that significant change could get emissions to required levels. Electric vehicles on the road, in the model, would increase from about 4,000 in 2018 to 47,000 by 2025. The number of heat pumps would triple, growing from 19,000 in use now to 70,000 by 2025.
Other necessary changes include a greater fuel efficiency in vehicles, an increase in rideshare use and a reliance on telecommuting in the workforce.
To make those changes, the report emphasizes, new policy is needed. For years, the state has focused on regulating its electricity sector. But as emissions from electricity generation have declined, at least on paper, emissions from transportation and heating have stayed steady.
“If Vermont is going to meet the GWSA (Global Warming Solutions Act) requirements,” the report concludes, “the state will need to establish new policy and regulatory frameworks.”
Duval said the network based its estimates off of the findings of a panel of experts convened by the state, interviews with other experts, and analysis of “the known and proven actions that Vermont has access to.”
“Given what we know now, this is our best effort at a model that can add up to achieving Vermont’s emissions reduction requirements,” Duval said.
Crucial to that work, Duval said, is a focus on equity in the energy transition. Already, Tuesday’s report shows, energy costs exact a disproportionate toll on low-income Vermonters.
For those in Vermont making $27,000 or less annually, the cost of heating and electricity combined is a burden equivalent to 18% of their income. For those who make under $51,200, the percentage is about 11%.
Those making more than $80,000 annually, however, spend 4.8% of their income or less on those costs, despite consuming far more energy on average.
“Renters, and especially low-income renters, are disproportionately dependent on and heating with old resistance electric heating systems — some of the most inefficient, high-cost ways to heat a home,” Duval said.
As the landlord is responsible for the upfront cost to renovate heating systems, renters frequently have little recourse to change this.
“What we really want to see centered,” Duval said, “is a conversation around energy equity. And how we ensure that the benefits of the energy transition are putting (low-income individuals) at the front of the line rather than at the back of the line.”
New policy, Duval said, is one way to ensure that the inequities in heating, transportation and other energy costs are not carried over as the state cleans up its energy.
“When we pursue solutions to help reduce emissions, it's also a win for consumers and the Vermont economy,” he said. But there’s a lot of work left to be done.
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