COMMENTARY: Vermont, Let’s Get Serious About Climate Change

COMMENTARY: Vermont, Let’s Get Serious About Climate Change

By Elizabeth Courtney, VNRC Executive Director

October 2008

October 2008 marks the first anniversary of the release of the Vermont Governor’s Climate Change Commission’s much heralded report. At that time, the six-member commission summarized its findings and those of its 31 member plenary group with these words:

“The time for debate over the realities of global climate change is over. Global climate change is occurring, and every Vermonter will experience its impacts on the quality of life for which Vermont is justifiably famous.  Today, our ability to “keep Vermont, Vermont” is at grave risk.”

Some of you might be wondering what ever became of the document that recommended 38 policy options designed to reduce Vermont’s carbon emissions 50 percent by 2028. Having served on that commission, and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the other five members, I’ve been wondering that too.

The intent was that the Vermont Legislature, the administrations’ various agencies and the public and private sectors — informed by state and national experts— would implement the policies put forward by the commission.

My fear is that the bulk of the recommendations may end up on a shelf collecting dust. One year later, few of the energy and climate-change solutions outlined in the Climate Commission’s report have moved off the dime. With a couple of exceptions (the beginnings of the creation of an all-fuels utility and naming of the individuals who will comprise the “Vermont Climate Collaborative partnership with UVM, among them) there has been little effort, thus far, to implement the recommendations.

The virtual inaction on this front, when the best strategies have been vetted and clearly outlined, is troubling.

Energy prices continue to soar. Renewal contract deadlines with Vermont’s two largest electricity suppliers loom closer. The development of new renewable energy projects in Vermont is practically stagnant. And at least one big policy implemented during this past year even undercuts the Climate Commission’s recommendations: the new Vermont Neighborhoods Law (H.863) can lead to sprawl development and loss of farm and forest land, a consequence the commission strongly urged Vermont to avoid.

So, what did the report actually recommend?

In its report, the commission “urge(ed) the governor to focus the state’s efforts on six overarching recommendations first.” We put forward the well-researched findings of the 38 policy options under this umbrella, as the best place for Vermont to start addressing climate change.  Implementing each of the 38 recommendations is important. To give Vermonters a sense of what some of those policy guidelines look like, here’s a snapshot, paraphrased:

1.    Building on Vermont’s Energy Efficiency Leadership and Renewable Energy Potential

“The Commission strongly urges(d) the Governor and the Legislature to explore together ways to:

•    “… extend Vermont’s existing and highly effective demand-side management (DSM) efforts to include additional fuels beyond electricity and natural gas, especially heating oil used in residential, commercial, and industrial establishments,”

•    “… stimulate investment in strategically located renewable energy facilities, such as wind turbines, with a focus on the needs of local communities.”

2.    Keeping Our Farms, Farms and Our Forests, Forests

“Central to curbing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions is the conservation of Vermont’s significant existing “Green Bank” – our working landscape, our abundant forests, our maintenance of open land.  The Commission urge(d) the Governor to:

•    “Protect working farms and forests by pursuing strategies to reduce the rate at which existing crop, pasture, and forest lands are converted to developed uses.”

3.    Reducing Emissions in a Renewed Transportation System Within and Between Vibrant Town Centers

“Future development along the lines of Vermont’s historic settlement pattern of compact town centers surrounded by open countryside will also provide multiple benefits.  Not only would it be consistent with Vermont’s traditional character, it would reduce travel demand and create a more transit-oriented pattern of growth.  At the same time, Vermont must invest more in its transportation infrastructure, including highways, railroads and park-and-ride facilities, so that the development of public transportation can be accelerated.  In particular, we urge(d) the Governor to:

•    “… (develop) incentives for reduced travel or low emitting vehicles, such as “feebates” for low mileage vehicles…,”

•    “… expand and improve inter-city bus and rail service, including both passenger and freight transport and inter-modal connectivity, such as bicycle, pedestrian, shuttle services, etc.,”

•    “Promote planning efforts that adopt and embrace the concept of town centers.”

4.    Educating and Engaging Vermonters About Climate Change

“The Commission hopes that the Governor, state government, the state’s institutions of higher learning, its businesses and, most importantly, its residents recognize the costs of not doing enough to address climate change.  In particular, we urge the Governor to:

•    “Insure the implementation of a new Center for Climate Change and Waste Reduction within the Agency of Natural Resources.”

5.    Leading by Example

In order to avoid a ‘stovepipe’ approach to public policy, we urge the Governor to insure Vermont state government leads by example by:

•    “(Create) a climate change cabinet that will coordinate climate change efforts across all agencies…”

6. The Vermont Climate Collaborative:  A Signature Partnership of Vermont’s Government, Academic, and Private Sectors

•    “We envision the Vermont Climate Collaborative as a strategic partnership to conduct and intensify capacity for essential research, innovation, and technology transfer in environmental and sustainable technologies that can spawn new, environmentally sound economic opportunities.

The Climate Commission’s well-vetted and strategic ideas are the foundation upon which Vermont must rise to meet the responsibilities and economic opportunities associated with an energy-constrained, warming world. Today.

There is so much to do. And, thankfully, this report is a platform upon which to do it — if we use it, and we must. The Climate Commission has given the state a document, which reflects the strategic thinking, expertise and steadfast effort of some of Vermont’s best and brightest thinkers on this issue.

The ideas outlined in the report tackle both Vermont’s energy future and economic security simultaneously. But Vermont leaders — from the grassroots (led in large part by intrepid energy committees across the state) to the highest levels of government — will need to work hard and be on the same page to implement the ideas, policies and programs to get us where we need to go.

So, please, help make this possible. Don’t let this guiding document languish on the shelf. Speak to your legislative candidates and to those running for statewide office. Raise these questions, ask them about the future of the Governor’s Climate Change Commission’s report and help keep Vermont’s eye on this critical ball.

(Read more and find out how you can get involved here.)