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Lawmakers push to make greenhouse gas reductions mandatory

A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of roughly 25% over the next five years in Vermont should be mandatory, according to key lawmakers.

Although Vermont has a goal in statute to slash emissions 50% below 1990 levels by 2028, emissions have been rising in recent years. The most recent data from 2015 shows emissions 16% higher than in 1990.

Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee, said his committee will be working on a bill early in the session to update the state’s goals – and make meeting them a requirement, not an ideal.

“Those are goals that we put out…over ten years ago and the state, from a policy standpoint, has done very little in terms of coordinated action to pursue the accomplishment of those and that’s not going to work,” he said. “We need accountability to pursue those standards.”

The bill, known as the Global Warming Solutions Act, would require the state to reduce emissions 26% below 2005 levels by 2025 – or roughly a quarter from present levels. This would align with the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, which Gov. Phil Scott and 23 other state leaders recommitted to when Trump signaled the U.S.’s withdrawal.

To reach its goal, Vermont would need to reduce 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below by 2050, with a goal of having net zero emissions by mid-century through carbon sequestration, said Briglin.

The Global Warming Solutions Act, named as a priority for the Vermont Climate Solutions Caucus next session, is based on similar laws passed in other New England states. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, has expressed strong support for the bill.

Briglin has looked toward the New York and Maine versions as models for Vermont. Both states opted for approaches that bring different parts of government and other stakeholders together to come up with a “climate action plan” to outline how emissions reductions would be achieved, he said. The state Agency of Natural Resources, which has the authority to regulate pollutants, would then have to set rules to achieve those reductions based on that blueprint.

“I think that gets us beyond where we are now with climate policy in Vermont, which is we don’t have a plan.” he said. “We need a plan.”

In contrast, Massachusetts required the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to come up with the emissions reduction plan. Conservation Law Foundation took Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection to court, saying it failed to develop adequate emissions reducing regulations: an opinion that was upheld by the state Supreme Court..

Briglin said that while Vermont could be taken to court for not developing strict enough regulations to reduce emissions, the aim of the planning process would be to provide ANR with clear enough guidance to avoid litigation.

“It’s not a financial penalty,” he stressed. “If this was something that wound up in the court system, ANR would be the defendant and it would be a judge saying … the rules and policy that you have put in place have not been sufficient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per the statute and you have to go back to the table and do more.”

Peter Walke, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, said in an interview that it would be “really challenging” to meet the 2025 target.

“My concerns are we’ve spent decades getting to where we are and we’re still moving up,” he said Friday, adding that the longer term emissions reductions requirements in the Global Warming Solutions Act appear more within reach.

Walke also expressed concerns that the lag time with federal emissions data the state uses to tally Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions, it would be hard for the state to know in real time whether it had met the mandated reductions.

He added that the version of the Global Warming Solutions Act introduced last session provided limited guidance for how to “to regulate climate change to the point where we can meet our targets. ”

“That doesn’t necessarily tell us where we should be getting those emissions reductions from” or whether the agency should take into account factors like cost effectiveness, he said.

Briglin said that the climate action planning process started by the bill would provide further guidance for the agency on how to go about regulating emissions reductions.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, vice chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee, has raised concerns about focusing climate legislation too narrowly on emissions reductions. In an interview last week and in a recent commentary in VTDigger, Sibilia said she wants to make sure the policy discussion this session also focuses on helping rural Vermont cope with a changing climate.

“Literally, we can reduce emissions to zero and the damage that has already been done, my people are still going to be dealing with the impacts in terms of stronger storms and more frequent outages,” she said.

Sibilia said she would be focusing this session on measures to ensure the state can provide rapid emergency response and disaster recovery in more isolated areas. She cited a recent conversation with the fire chief in Stamford, which is an hour away from state police. Another priority will be ensuring the telecommunications sector and electrical utilities are adequately protecting infrastructure to limit outages, she added.

Briglin said he sees the bill as both helping Vermont move forward in cutting emissions in the face of federal inaction and preparing for the impacts of more extreme weather events.

“When we take this bill up, the issue that we’re trying to get at here is not simply about greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” he said. “The climate emergency relates not only to that but it relates to how do we make our state more resilient, particularly rural areas and particularly parts of our economy that are going to be challenged in making the transition.”