In 2020, Vermont emitted fewer greenhouse gases than in its 30 previous years of tracking — a 10% reduction from 2017 to 2020. The reduction came largely from transportation emissions, which dropped by 15% between 2019 and 2020 as people traveled less during the Covid-19 pandemic. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Greenhouse gas emissions declined in Vermont in 2020, according to new data from the Agency of Natural Resources’ climate office, but the dip appears to have been temporary. 

The agency released its latest greenhouse gas emissions inventory on Tuesday, which includes the years up to 2020. It marks the first comprehensive analysis of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions since 2018.

It also looks forward, predicting that, absent new policies, Vermont will fall short of its legally binding emissions requirements. 

In 2020, Vermont emitted fewer greenhouse gases than in its 30 previous years of tracking — a 10% reduction from 2017 to 2020. The reduction came largely from transportation emissions, which dropped by 15% between 2019 and 2020 as people traveled less.

“Estimates from 2020 are likely an outlier due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report states.

In 2020, Vermont emitted a total of 7.99 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, a metric used to account for the global warming potential of various greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. 

The report also predicts Vermont’s emissions in 2025 and 2030, assuming that “similar trends continue into the future without any new policies to reduce emissions.”

Total greenhouse gas emissions, broken down by sector, from 1990 to 2020. Courtesy of the Agency of Natural Resources

Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020 aligns the state with the Paris Accord and requires it to reduce emissions 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. If Vermont falls short, the act allows any person to sue the state, potentially causing a judge to require the Agency of Natural Resources to adjust course and issue new regulations to meet the requirements. 

The state’s modeling, outlined in the report, predicts that Vermont will get halfway to its 2025 requirements and slightly less than halfway to its 2030 requirements, though it includes the caveat that “estimating what greenhouse gas emissions totals will be in a future year requires making many assumptions.”

“One of the big takeaways here is that without additional policy action, as recommended by the Vermont Climate Council — especially the single largest pollution reduction strategy that was recommended, a clean heat standard — it is difficult to see how Vermont can have any chance to reduce emissions at the science-based scale and pace that we have, as a state, have committed to,” said Jared Duval, a member of the Vermont Climate Council and executive director of the Energy Action Network, which analyzes and tracks the state’s emissions.  

For the first time, in 2020, transportation was not the state’s top-emitting sector. Instead, by a hair, the thermal sector, which includes heating and cooling Vermont’s buildings, produced more emissions than any other category. While transportation was estimated to have produced 35.3% of the emissions in 2020, the thermal sector produced 35.6%. 

The trend is expected to continue, but for different reasons. While the report attributed the decline in 2020 to the pandemic, it predicts that a switch to electric vehicles will slowly reduce transportation emissions in the coming years. 

Alongside California and several other states, Vermont has introduced regulations that will push Vermont’s market for new passenger cars to all-electric in a little more than a decade.  

Meanwhile, policies for the heating sector are not set in stone. Lawmakers have yet to seal the deal to enact a clean heat standard, which is expected to transition the sector to less-polluting heating systems such as cold-climate electric heat pumps and better-insulated homes.

Without policies that regulate heating and cooling in Vermont’s buildings, thermal sector emissions are expected to be 23% higher than emissions in the transportation sector by 2030, according to the report.

Last year, Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a bill that would have created a clean heat standard, and lawmakers failed to override his veto by one vote. He is expected to veto a similar bill any day now, though this time lawmakers may have the votes for an override. 

Ben Edgerly Walsh, a climate and energy lobbyist for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said the new report “paints an unbelievably clear picture of the need for action” in the thermal sector. 

“The fact that the governor is planning on vetoing the first comprehensive action to cut carbon pollution in the thermal sector the state’s ever taken the same week that his administration is projecting we’re gonna fall miles short of hitting our requirements — and that’s mostly due to inaction in thermal sector — is irresponsible,” he said. 

The governor has expressed concerns about the policy’s potential financial impact on low- and moderate-income Vermonters. While lawmakers have said a study would be completed before the Legislature would vote again on the issue in 2025, Scott has said he is not completely certain that lawmakers would be obligated to debate the issue through a future bill before the program is implemented. 

The state’s climate office also announced Tuesday that it plans to establish a specific date to release the greenhouse gas inventory each year, and it will establish a process through which members of the public can comment on methods used to calculate emissions. In the past, environmental groups such as the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club have criticized the state’s methods, saying they don’t include all of the state’s emissions.

Correction: A previous version of this story inexactly described greenhouse gas emission predictions for 2030.

VTDigger's environment reporter.