Sandra Levine: Picking up the pace on climate action

By SANDRA LEVINE

Climate change is the biggest environmental and public health challenge of our generation. And fighting it just got tougher.

Since 1990, climate-damaging emissions have increased 16 percent in Vermont. On top of that, the most recent report by more than 90 of the top climate scientists from 40 countries shows that the goals we previously set are not up to the task. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to get our emissions down to zero by 2050.

As wildfires rage across the west and high winds, floods, and power outages become more frequent and severe because of our changing climate, it is clear these impacts touch us personally and cannot be ignored. The callous backpedaling at the federal level means action by states, cities, businesses, and individuals must pick up the slack.

There is no question the magnitude of what needs to be done can leave us feeling like Sisyphus, the character in Greek mythology whose hubris eternally condemns him to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it fall back down again. But thankfully, our task isn’t so severe and permanent.

While the task ahead of us is sobering, it is neither a reason to despair nor an excuse for inaction. Meeting our climate goals on a more aggressive timeline is within our reach.

Here in Vermont, we have many of the right tools in place to double down on energy efficiency while making renewable solar and wind energy 70 to 80 percent of our electricity supply. We can reduce emissions by powering our vehicles and machinery with clean energy. And we can heat more homes with cleaner energy as well. By doing this, we can transform our economy and leave a cleaner and healthier place to live for future generations.

To achieve the energy and economic transition that climate change demands, we have to pick up the pace – a lot. That means using the tools we have and not just boasting that we have them.

The recent election of many new and returning legislators committed to bold action on climate change shows that voters support these actions. On the regulatory front, the Public Utility Commission is looking at how to advance electric vehicles, improve the delivery of energy efficiency, and reduce fossil fuel use in Vermont. These are all encouraging. The next year will reveal a range of available solutions that can ensure all Vermonters benefit from the transition to clean energy.

For carbon pricing, which has long been a proven tool to reduce emissions, the Legislature will soon have the results of an ongoing study. This can direct legislators to a model that delivers the biggest cost savings, the widest benefits, and the most pollution reduction for Vermont.

Legislators should also require cutting greenhouse gas emissions, as other New England states have done. This would ensure the timeliness of needed reductions and keep us on track to get to the zero by 2050 level. It would avoid Vermont again looking in the rearview mirror and seeing only missed targets.

On energy efficiency, the Legislature should double the funding for weatherization so more Vermonters – and especially those with low incomes – can save money and stay warm in the winter. State regulators should also help customers have the best, cleanest and lowest cost options for reducing climate-damaging emissions, including expanding solar and battery storage options as well as heat pumps.

For electric vehicles, legislators can use money from the Volkswagen settlement to create incentive programs that prioritize low- and middle-income Vermonters. Regulators can expand opportunities to put more electric vehicles on the road and more vehicle charging in place. They can make sure utility regulation and rates avoid creating roadblocks that keep consumers and businesses from using electric cars and trucks.

Putting Vermont on a path to zero emissions opens up new opportunities. With haste and robust commitment, Vermont can jump past fossil fuels to create greater resilience and a cleaner energy future. But we can’t wait. We need to take action now.

Sandra Levine is a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier. This piece ran on VTDigger.

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