Energy & Environment

Vermont needs to reduce emissions by 2025. Can it stick the landing?

Traffic travels along Main Street in Burlington on Nov. 24, 2021. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The people most familiar with Vermont’s climate plan are not confident that the state will meet its 2025 emission reduction requirement. 

In 2020, state lawmakers passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, which legally requires Vermont to reduce its emissions by set amounts in the coming decades. The first of those deadlines, 2025, is coming up fast, and as lawmakers work through climate legislation this session, gaps in the emission reduction plan are crystallizing. 

Members of Vermont’s Climate Council crafted a statewide Climate Action Plan, published in December, calculated to decrease emissions by the necessary amounts. But key pieces of the plan have fallen apart or are not on track to be implemented in time to meet the 2025 deadline. 

State officials do not know how much Vermont is currently emitting, which adds a layer of complexity to the task at hand. The most recent data, from 2018, precedes major changes in transportation and commerce that took place during the pandemic. Some of those changes, such as a shift to remote work, could be long-lasting.

While policies and programs are likely needed to help Vermont meet its 2025 deadline, there is some indication that Vermonters are making headway despite the hiccups. 

Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said the charted emission reductions that need to take place by 2025 are “a heck of a lot gentler than the slope from 2025 to 2030.” Much of the accountability falls to her agency if Vermont does not achieve the required reductions by other means. 

Vehicles are becoming more fuel-efficient, and Vermonters are increasingly installing efficient heating systems, for example, and some modeling “suggests we're going to make progress even absent any other construct or efforts,” Moore said. “Whether or not it'll be sufficient is a great question.”

The Global Warming Solutions Act required the Climate Council to put together a plan that “gives us a high degree of confidence that we will meet the emissions reduction requirements,” said Jared Duval, speaking as a member of the Climate Council. Separately, Duval is also executive director of the Energy Action Network, a group that closely tracks and analyzes emissions data in Vermont.

Asked about the progress Moore raised, Duval said it's “possible that we could meet the 2025 emissions reduction requirements.”

“I don't have a high degree of confidence that we will,” he said. 

The policies at play

Vermont needs to reduce its emissions by 26% below 2005 levels by 2025 — a decline equivalent to about 1.26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That would be the equivalent of 141 million gallons of gasoline, according to a calculator from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. 

By 2030, the state must reduce emissions to 40% below 1990 levels. That’s 3.46 million metric tons lower than 2018 levels. 

Two types of policies often yield reliable results for reducing emissions, Duval said. One is an emissions cap. Another is a performance standard, where polluters make investments toward sustainability. 

“Unless we are using emissions-capping policies or performance standard policies, it's not clear to me that we can have a high degree of confidence that we're going to meet our legal requirements,” Duval said. 

In the weeks leading up to release of the Climate Action Plan, a regional initiative to reduce transportation emissions crumbled when multiple states backed out. Vermont itself had not yet committed to joining the initiative but was moving in that direction.

Transportation accounts for the biggest single share of the state’s emissions, and councilors had expected the Transportation Climate Initiative Program, often called TCI-P, to reduce emissions in participating states by 26% throughout the next decade. It was one of the most impactful recommendations in the Climate Action Plan — and then it fell apart.

The Climate Council plans to propose new recommendations for the transportation sector by November. 

Another impactful measure, the clean heat standard, which is expected to reduce emissions in the state’s thermal sector, is currently working its way through the Legislature. 

Jared Duval
Jared Duval. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The bill, H.715, has already passed the House and is sitting before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. As passed by the House, the bill proposes implementing the clean heat standard on Jan. 1, 2025 — the same day as the 2025 emissions deadline. 

Gov. Phil Scott has also expressed concerns about the bill, sparking questions about a potential veto. 

Duval testified before the Senate Natural Resources Committee last week, urging lawmakers to pass the bill this session. 

“I want to say that the most important thing — whether from the perspective of legal compliance with the Global Warming Solutions Act, whether given the moral urgency of global climate justice or whether from the perspective of reducing costs and maximizing savings in the needed energy transition — is to not delay passage and implementation of this bill beyond this year,” he told lawmakers. 

Otherwise, Duval said during his testimony, “the Climate Action Plan will almost certainly not add up for 2025, let alone 2030.”

Lawmakers are balancing the need to reduce emissions with the complexity of putting forward a regulatory system that does not hurt Vermonters who use fossil fuels to heat their homes — particularly those already struggling to pay the surging costs for fuels such as propane and heating oil. Proponents of the measure say a transition away from the volatile fossil fuel market will reduce costs for Vermonters.

“I think there’s a practical reality of trying to make sure we're making good choices for the long term, even if it may not be a perfect fit with some of the short-term requirements, frankly, of the Global Warming Solutions Act,” said Moore, head of the Agency of Natural Resources.  

Many argue that the Climate Council should have included more people in its public engagement process. Lessons from that time have caused lawmakers to require the Public Utility Commission — which would carry out the implementation of a clean heat standard — to hold more robust public discussions before a policy would take hold. 

Moore said crafting good policy takes priority in her mind. She places “extra weight” on whether “these are the right programs and policies for the 2030 goal, but even to a greater extent, to reach our 2050 goals.”

What happens if Vermont doesn’t meet the deadline?

Failing to reach the emission requirements would open the state to potential lawsuits, in which a judge could order Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources to take corrective action. 

While Vermont’s current climate plans are largely incentive-based — helping Vermonters buy electric vehicles, for example, or install heat pumps — the agency only has regulatory power. 

“I would argue the council's made it pretty clear that voluntary or incentive-based programs are really the preferred approach, particularly when it comes to the thermal and transportation sectors, as opposed to a regulatory or command-and-control approach, which is pretty much the only tool we have in our toolbox,” Moore said. 

Julie Moore. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Moore said if the state is making good-faith efforts to create the types of policies needed to achieve the long-term goals, she hopes “that the judge would be inclined to find that we just need to continue, as opposed to abandon what we're doing and change direction.”

“A lot of that relies on us being able to make a credible case that we're doing the hard work that's needed to achieve the requirements established by the Global Warming Solutions Act,” she said. 

But Moore and Duval agree that missing the 2025 targets could lead to broader issues down the road. Duval said it will be harder to meet deadlines in 2030 and 2050 if the state does not hit 2025 first. 

A potential delay in implementing the clean heat standard, for example, would give the state less time to pull off the same amount of emission reductions.

“And then it's possible that the percentage of reduction that you have to get in each year is higher,” he said. 

Asked whether Vermont is definitively off track from meeting its 2025 requirements, Duval said it comes down to degrees of confidence.

“It's difficult to say that we're not on track because there's delays in data gathering — part of our vision is blocked,” Duval said. “But what I'm very comfortable saying is that I don’t think there's reason for us to have a high degree of confidence that we will meet the 2025 or certainly not the 2030 targets, given where we stand right now.”

Clarification: A previous version of this story was unclear on Jared Duval’s testimony before the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

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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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