Make No Little Plans

We all have goals, such as lose 10 pounds or call your mother once a week.  Sometimes they are aspirational—exercise more, drink less beer, or be nicer to your spouse.  Most, however, are like New Years resolutions—deeply felt and quickly ignored.

Vermont has set some lofty goals aimed at reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).  In the early 2000s the Legislature enacted 10 V.S.A. Sec. 578, proclaiming that GHG would be reduced by the following percentages from a 1990 baseline:
(1) 25 percent by January 1, 2012;
(2) 50 percent by January 1, 2028;
(3) if practicable using reasonable efforts, 75 percent by January 1, 2050.

The legislature at the time was coordinating Vermont’s efforts with those of other New England states and Eastern Canadian provinces. The goals were based on what was believed necessary to address climate change globally and Vermont would do its part.

But a promise to lose 10 pounds, or any other goal, is no more than a wish unless you make a plan, take action based on that plan and monitor your progress along the way.

The Agency of Natural Resources Air Quality Division, which monitors the state’s progress, found that Vermont hit an emissions high in 2004 and has trended slightly downward or level ever since. That may sound okay. But it’s far short of the 2012 target of 25% reduction of GHGs.  And ANR’s latest inventory, based on 2013 data and published in 2017, showed that emissions are still approximately 4% above the 1990 baseline. Rather than lowering GHGs, we’ve actually increased them and now remain far from meeting the law’s 2028 goal of a 50% reduction.

We don’t yet have data on how much carbon we emitted since 2014, but we do know that Vermonters bought more gas and diesel fuel and drove more miles than in previous years—a worrisome sign that the transportation sector is likely generating higher than acceptable levels of emissions.

When it comes to climate change, Vermont has followed the advice of early 20th century planner/architect Daniel Burnham to “make no little plans.” Governor Douglas’ Commission on Climate Change delivered a hefty 100-plus page report in 2007. Governor Shumlin’s administration produced two energy plans that included many hundreds of pages combined.  The plans are also large in spirit. The 2011 and 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plans (CEP) set the ambitious goal of relying on 90% renewable power by 2050.

Like the specifics of a diet that requires eating healthier and less food, the 2016 CEP outlines recommendations across the electric, heating, and transportation sectors with emphases on reducing energy consumption and shifting from fossil to renewable fuels.

The transportation-related recommendations fall into two big categories. The first includes strategies to move people and goods more efficiently by: replacing single occupancy commuter trips with carpooling, transit, biking and walking; improving the state’s rail network for freight and passenger service; and growing denser to make these alternatives possible. The second category contains ways to replace fossil fuels with renewably produced electricity and cleaner burning natural gas and bio fuels.

If we want to wean our transportation system entirely off fossil fuels by 2050, we need aggressive sustained action and innovation. The list of challenges is long.

Current land use patterns are unlikely to change significantly, and the economic and technical realities of moving goods present obstacles. It’s unclear whether the CEP recommendations will yield results. For example, there isn’t an accurate way to measure the impact of smart growth policies on emissions in rural areas. We can track the GHG emissions benefits of replacing fossil fuel powered cars with electric vehicles, but we can’t predict what the future number and efficiency of these cars will be. And we don’t how autonomous vehicles will fit into the mix.

While VTrans, the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, and UVM transportation researchers have made efforts to collect GHG emissions data and study the beneficial effects of transportation efficiency and fuel switching now and in the future, much more is needed.

So where does all this leave the state of Vermont and its citizens?  We have specific GHG reduction goals codified in law. ANR is tracking progress, or rather a lack of progress.  Quantifying the actual emissions benefits of various recommendations to achieve the state’s goals is challenging. But regardless, there are sometimes other compelling reasons to follow the CEP, including economic, environmental, health, and quality of life benefits from a compact development pattern and more travel options.  

The state’s  biggest challenge is turning the litany of recommendations into real action. Political leaders, such as members of the House and Senate Transportation Committees must be held accountable by voters to put effective policies in place.  Adequate funding  for programs and infrastructure that offer real alternatives to driving, like statewide commuter transit programs are needed and electric vehicles must be treated as economic and environmental opportunities rather than a threat to gas tax revenues.

One proven emissions reduction strategy, as recommended in the 2016 CEP, is to leverage the power of pricing. Charging those who emit carbon discourages consumption of fossil fuels through basic economics.  The proceeds can be invested in efficiency and renewable power and energy dollars stay local rather than going to oil producers and refiners in distant states and countries.  

For several years, northeast states have undertaken a form of electric sector pricing through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) cap and trade program. The program has reduced emissions and boosted the region’s economy, and in Vermont has primarily funded low-income weatherization programs through the state’s share of of the RGGI auction proceeds.

In the fall of 2017 a coalition of energy and environmental  groups put forth a carbon pricing proposal dubbed the ESSEX Plan (Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy eXchange).  ESSEX increases the cost of fossil fuels for heating and transportation while  simultaneously reducing electric rates and providing economic relief for low income rural Vermonters.  The ESSEX plan, however failed to gain traction with both the legislature and the governor.

Governor Scott’s’ own Climate Action Commission meanwhile recommended in 2017 that pricing mechanisms at the state and regional levels be studied further. The Governor in a January 2018 letter to the Commission opposed research such as an  investigation into pricing mechanisms costs and benefits and other related topics. This was due to the Governor’s hostility towards any actions, including research, associated with potential taxation.

Vermont has aggressive climate change goals. They are well-researched and stated in law. But unless policy makers, state and local governments, and all Vermonters make a deeper and ongoing commitment, and vote and act as aggressively and purposefully as we speak, those goals are merely wishes.

Gina Campoli is the former Vermont Agency of Transportation Environmental Policy Manager. She lives and works from her home in Craftsbury, Vermont.