Energy & Environment

Council authorizes state’s 1st Climate Action Plan

The Climate Council met virtually on Wednesday, Dec. 1, and voted to adopt Vermont’s first Climate Action Plan. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

Updated at 7:43 p.m.

The Vermont Climate Council voted 19-4 to approve the state’s first Climate Action Plan on Wednesday, a sweeping document that outlines pathways to meet the state’s greenhouse gas emissions requirements established through the Global Warming Solutions Act. 

At almost 300 pages in length, the initial plan recommends more than 230 actions to be taken up by the Legislature and state agencies, along with regional, local, private and nonprofit agencies and organizations. 

It’s the product of hundreds of hours on the part of council members and subcommittee members — some of whom are largely volunteers — who rushed to accomplish the ambitious timeline established by the Global Warming Solutions Act. 

The recommendations include a clean heat standard, a robust weatherization program that prioritizes historically marginalized Vermonters; transportation investments such as expanded charging stations for electric vehicles, adopting California’s Advanced Clean Cars II and Advanced Clean Trucks rules; and investing in best management practices for agriculture. 

The plan also recommends adopting an environmental justice policy and outlines methods to protect and prioritize Vermonters in frontline communities during the transition to new policies.  

Vermont must reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below 1990 by 2050. 

Its passage came along with dissent from Climate Council members who serve in Gov. Phil Scott’s administration. They expressed concerns about the rapid timeline established for the work. 

“No member of the administration supports the overzealous process established by the Legislature in the Global Warming Solutions Act nor each and every action in the Climate Action Plan issued today,” the statement said. 

Leaders of four state agencies voted against the plan: Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets; Lindsay Kurrle, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development; Joe Flynn, secretary of the Agency of Transportation; and Kristin Clouser, interim secretary of the Agency of Administration. 

Temperature predictions, as illustrated in the Climate Action Plan. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

Four other members of the administration who also serve on the council voted “yes.”

Scott supports the statement issued by the members of his administration, according to spokesperson Jason Maulucci. 

“The governor greatly appreciates the hundreds of hours members of his team and their staffs have devoted to this work. He has full trust and faith in the executive branch members of the council, and stands squarely behind the statement they just issued,” Maulucci said in an email after a Wednesday vote. 

Meanwhile, another statement from a collection of climate advocacy and business groups hailed the plan’s passage. Those organizations included the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Renewable Energy Vermont and Vermont Conservation Voters. 

“While the plan falls short in some ways and far more work must be done to engage Vermonters and turn the policies advanced in this plan into real, tangible actions, its adoption lays the foundation for Vermont to finally treat this crisis with the seriousness it demands and get on track to meet our climate requirements,” Ben Edgerly Walsh, climate and energy program director for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said in the statement. 

Council members plan to continue engaging with the public and the bodies responsible for carrying out the plan in the months to come as the plan is updated and revised. 

Administration’s concerns

While acknowledging that climate change is “real and accelerating” and that the state must “prepare for the effects and impact on our planet,” the statement issued from members of the Scott administration outlined concerns related to process, timeline and the “construct of the Global Warming Solutions Act.”

Many of the same state agencies led by those who dissented will be charged with carrying out the plan’s recommendations. 

Authors cite one of Scott’s reasons for initially vetoing the act in September 2020 — the plan should have been carried out by the Legislature and state agencies, it said, rather than an “unelected body.” The 23-member council was made up of state agency leaders and representatives from various sectors, appointed by members of the Legislature. 

The statement also takes aim at a timeframe it calls unrealistic, “which has resulted in an unfortunate lack of transparency into the impact of the plan, particularly on rural Vermont and disadvantaged communities.”

It identifies four areas of concern in the plan, where members of the executive branch “don’t believe there is a path to a successful outcome.”

First, they oppose a pathway that would amend the state’s current use program — a tax incentive program for landowners with large areas of forest or farmland — to include properties that are “Forever Wild,” or managed passively. Specifically, the council members expressed concern that the change would alter the tax program and affect taxpayers more broadly. 

Council members in the administration also “dissent from the majority decision to recommend a statewide goal of ‘no net loss’ of natural and working lands, without the foundational building block: a clear definition of ‘natural lands.’”

They object to a recommendation that calls for a statewide land use plan that would guide “development to growth areas, town centers, and appropriate rural locations, and limits the development within ecologically sensitive/risk-prone areas.” The administration objects to this proposal, saying the state should defer to existing land use laws, such as Act 250

Finally, the plan recommends that the state keep the door ajar to possibly join the Transportation and Climate Initiative Program, or TCI-P, a regional cap-and-trade climate initiative that crumbled recently when Connecticut and Massachusetts backed out, citing lack of support from other states and rising gasoline prices. Forty percent of emissions in Vermont come from the transportation sector, and the program was lauded for its projected impact on reductions. 

Given the lack of certainty about the future of the program, the statement from dissenting council members said the Legislature should not invest time and energy to pass legislation that would prepare the state to enter the program if it becomes viable in the future.

After the administration’s statement was shared at the same Wednesday meeting during which council members voted to approve the plan, Catherine Dimitruk, a council member and executive director of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission, said it “makes me sad.”

“I just want to express my sadness that such a negative statement is going on at the same time as the plan is being released,” she said.

Walsh, with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, told VTDigger Wednesday he thought there had been enough time for the dissenting members of the administration to voice their concerns and work through them during the initial plan’s creation. 

“The fact that we started this process with a gubernatorial veto and then have half of the administrative appointees voting for the plan, in the end, I think, is very encouraging and should be a good sign that this plan is, in fact, a strong starting point for the kind of climate action we actually need hare,” he said.

In another statement, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray thanked the Vermonters who spent time and contributed expertise to the plan. 

“The Climate Council’s recommendations, backed by potential federal funding and climate initiatives in the Build Back Better bill, could give our state a historic chance to make a down payment on a cheaper, more resilient, and independent energy future for every Vermonter,” she said. “The Climate Council’s plan is a necessary start but there is lots of work still to be done and we all will have a role to play.” 

A crossroads

Many environmental groups reacted similarly to the plan, recognizing it as a step forward for climate policy in Vermont while pointing to a long road ahead for the groups charged with implementing it. 

Each pathway within the plan names a “lead implementer,” responsible for carrying it out. Those bodies — the Legislature, state agencies and regional groups — will determine whether the recommendations become effective policies that ultimately meet Vermont’s emission reduction requirements. 

The plan “makes clear that the administration and lawmakers can and must take strong action to meet our climate pollution reduction, equity and resilience targets,” Lauren Hierl, executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters, said in the statement from business and environmental groups. 

So far, the most socioeconomically vulnerable Vermonters have not had an opportunity to engage with the process, according to a statement from 350VT, part of 350.org, an organization founded by environmentalist Bill McKibben. 

“We are at a crossroads,” it said. “What parts of the plan become reality and how this is done will determine whether Vermont is a true leader in helping to create a just and climate resilient future for everyone.”

Zack Porter, director of Standing Trees, an organization that promotes expanding “forever wild” forests on Vermont’s public lands, called the plan “a step in the right direction, but it’s far from a leap forward.” He called for more protection of native forest and wetland ecosystems that can store carbon, reduce flooding risks and support biodiversity, and he called for an end to biomass electricity. 

State Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, who introduced legislation that eventually became the Global Warming Solutions Act — which called for creation of the Climate Council and the Climate Action Plan — called the document a first step.

“Instead of taking a haphazard approach, kind of throwing different things at the wall to see what will ultimately stick, this instead takes an approach of planning,” he said. “How do we do what we’ve got to do over the next 10, 20, 30 years?”

He, too, acknowledged the work of the council members and said there’s been a lot of personal sacrifice from those who have worked hundreds of hours to complete the job. 

“I will also acknowledge,” he said, “that my hope and expectation is that the work of the Climate Council is by no means done.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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