David Flemming: A third of climate proposals deemed ‘unscientific on arrival’

This commentary is by David Flemming, a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute.

When I heard that David Hill of the Energy Futures Group was scheduled to present his group’s model to Vermont’s Climate Council two months ago, I was skeptical. The Climate Council’s plan, released in December 2021, seemed to rely heavily on a “social cost of carbon” to justify future climate proposals.  

Hill’s presentation left me surprised and concerned. First, I was surprised to see that, even with a social cost of carbon estimate triple the scientific consensus, many of the proposals were still so expensive that they could not be justified in terms of an “invest money now, see benefits later: mentality. Vermonters, therefore, are free to criticize many of the climate proposals without calling into question the scientific authenticity of the model commissioned by the Climate Council. 

The social cost of carbon is an estimate of the economic benefits derived from one additional ton of carbon dioxide that Vermont could give up to combat climate change.

To give an example of how the social cost of carbon will be used to analyze Climate Council proposals this upcoming legislative session: Carbon jet fuel creates financial benefits for Vermonters to the tune of $132 per ton of emissions. Multiplying $132 by Vermont’s 0.66 tons of CO2 emitted from carbon jet fuel, this resource provides an economic benefit of $87 million, across a 2022-50 timeframe. Since the Climate Council’s social cost of carbon is $146/ton of emissions on a global scale, we would logically spend the $132/ton necessary to prevent those emissions by developing and implementing an alternative jet fuel blend of half biodiesel, half carbon diesel. 

If instead, we used the Biden administration’s social cost of carbon of $51/ton, instead of the Climate Council’s social cost of carbon of $146/ton, implementing this blend would not make economic sense. After all, taking $132/ton out of Vermont money to save $51/ton globally would be irrational.

Among the five other questionable proposals that would fail Biden social cost of carbon justification but pass Climate Council muster include adding 5% more ethanol to gasoline and using biodiesel to heat buildings. 

Using social cost of carbon in excess of the scientific consensus does paint a few of the Vermont Climate Council’s programs in a better light. But what is astounding is that many of the Climate Council’s “recommended programs” to the Legislature are predicted to be net losers for the world, (not just Vermont), even after the Climate Council’s excessive social cost of carbon value of $146/ton of emissions is assumed. 

While most climate scientists would no doubt prioritize Biden’s social cost of carbon over the Climate Council’s estimate, this disagreement doesn’t matter much in the context of the costliest proposals. 

The Climate Council is expected to make six recommendations to the Legislature that have a negative net value to Vermonters, and the world at large, regardless if the Climate Council’s social cost of carbon or the Biden estimate is used. 

These proposals (to be accomplished by 2045 or 2050) include: replacing 80% of natural gas for heat with biogas, mandating that diesel gasoline be composed of 20% biodiesel, reducing vehicle miles traveled 10%, weatherizing 243,000 Vermont homes, and replacing 20% of propane/oil boilers with pellet stoves. 

So why on earth would the Legislature seriously consider such proposals, if the Energy Futures Group model shows they will be terrible investments? Certainly not the loosest pretense of scientific merit. Rather, because Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020 says so.

As Hill told the Climate Council’s mitigation committee, “only do(ing) the ones that provide net savings … risks not meeting the (Global Warming Solutions Act) requirements.” Those requirements stipulate that Vermont must fall 26% below 2005 emission levels by 2025, 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below by 2050. 

If Vermont fails to meet those requirements, then anyone can sue the state for not moving fast enough on reducing our (lowest in the country) emissions. 

If the Vermont Climate Council and Legislature tandem was interested in being a national leader on climate, they would only consider the proposals that are justified by the model they paid for. After all, if they were already planning to pass all proposals anyway, why bother hiring the consultants (with taxpayer money) to build the model? 

If they want us to suspend our disbelief in using a social cost of carbon well above the leading climate science, fine. But don’t try to pretend these proposals are “scientific” if they cannot be remotely tied to the commissioned model for the social cost of carbon. 

This gives the appearance that our Legislature wants to be seen emotionally involved in combating climate change, without bothering to lay out a framework that other states would consider copying. I really hope that is not the case. There is too much at stake for such grandstanding.

Correction: The amount of CO2 emitted from carbon jet fuel in Vermont has been corrected to 0.66 tons.


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