Tom Evslin: Vermont can exceed 2025 carbon reduction goal just by planting trees

This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. His blog is here

 “There are up to 536,000 acres of opportunity in Vermont to restore forest cover for climate mitigation. Reforesting these areas with approximately 291 million trees could capture 1.65 million tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to removing 355,000 cars from the road.” (The funny spelling means that these are metric tons — 1,000 kilograms each). This quote is from Reforestation Hub, a website run by the Nature Conservancy.

At most we have to reduce 1.28 million tons to meet the 2025 goal in the Global Warming Solutions Act passed by the Vermont Legislature over Gov. Scott’s veto last year. Vermont is required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 7.38 metric tons by 2025.

The Greenhouses Gas Emissions Inventory from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation says that we were at 8.66 metric tons in 2017 (the last year with hard data) and declining. In other words, we must plant only 77% of the acres identified by Reforestation Hub to get there.

Vermont dairy farmers own most of this land. Of that property, 427,000 acres are identified as pasture, but it looks from the maps like this includes hay and cornfields used to grow feed for cattle. Their businesses are suffering from overcapacity and the poor economics of producing liquid milk in Vermont as opposed to the Midwest. 

According to Vermont Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer, the Vermont state government spent $285 million between 2010 and 2019 on programs to support dairy farming. During that period, the number of dairy farms declined from 1,015 to 636. Some of the decline is due to consolidation but most is simply farms going out of business. 

Moreover, dairy farming is the most significant source of phosphorus runoff damaging our lakes and costing a small fortune to clean up. Farmers point out that they cannot afford the changes in farming practices necessary to prevent the runoff.

Buying land and reforesting it is often the most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when measured on a tons of reduction per dollar basis. The 2018 UN IPCC Report lists reforestation as the cheapest alternative per pound of CO2 removed from the atmosphere compared both to other ways of removing CO2 and to strategies for reducing emissions. 

We get four times as much annual reduction per dollar spent on trees than per dollar spent on solar panels (details here), even if we assume a high cost of $4,000 per acre for acquisition, remediation and planting. Both heat pumps and subsidies for electric cars are much more expensive paths to greenhouse gas reduction than reforestation (details here).

What is the Legislature likely to do?

The Climate Council, a group created by the Global Warming Solutions Act, has presented a set of proposals to the Legislature. Almost all the proposals are for reducing emissions in the usual expensive ways: solar panels, subsidies for heat pumps and electric cars (a particularly inequitable way to distribute money), joining a nonexistent multistate compact to impose a carbon tax, and various ways of raising the cost of fossil fuel to Vermonters. 

The report does, to its credit, have a small section on reforestation but only tiptoes, literally, around the edge of the potential of reforestation by recommending more trees around the edge of fields. 

The council recognizes that dairy cows are a significant source of greenhouse gases themselves, as well as other pollution, and recommends various expensive ways to reduce methane emissions per cow, but doesn’t suggest simply buying out uneconomic herds.

The Legislature will allocate as much money as it can to various emission-reduction subsidies because its focus is on reducing emissions rather than on reducing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. When the Legislature runs out of money — that’ll take a while, because there is a lot of federal money available — it will shift costs to consumers with various mandates and indirect penalties for fossil fuel use. It will continue to listen to the army of lobbyists from the renewable-industrial complex. Some of what the Legislature plans will be vetoed by Gov. Scott, but his vetoes may be overridden and/or he will be forced to accept some unwise expenditures in order to keep the overall cost to Vermonters down.

There still won’t be enough money to meet the 2025 goal, but the Global Warming Solutions Act has an ugly provision that allows anyone to sue the government if goals aren’t met. No telling what mischief and end runs on democracy this will allow unless it’s judged unconstitutional (which it may well be) or repealed.

What should the legislature do?

1. Recognize that removing a ton of greenhouse gas is just as valuable to the environment as avoiding a ton of emissions. Most states recognize that but Vermont doesn’t.

2. Realize that the decline of dairy farming is an opportunity for reforestation and that buying out failing farms is a farmer-friendly thing to do.

3. Compare each proposed reduction strategy to the alternative of reforestation purely on the basis of how many tons of greenhouse gases will be reduced per dollar spent.

4. Spend first on the most effective strategy — which will usually be reforestation in the next five years.

5. Allocate money that would have gone to ineffectual farm bailouts and less effective ways to reduce lake pollution to farm buyouts and forestation.

We will best meet our environmental goals by good use of Vermont land. Reforestation Hub shows the size of the opportunity. It’s time to change crops, as Vermont has often done in the past, and turn some farms to forests.

See also:

Failing Dairy Farms Are an Opportunity to Grow Back Better

Trees v. Solar Panels

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

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