Vermont Climate Council committees present draft recommendations

By Emma Cotton

The Vermont Climate Council reached a milestone Monday morning when three subcommittees presented their first iteration of a road map designed to drastically reduce carbon emissions and prepare the state for climate change. 

In rapid-fire, high-level presentations, three of the council’s five panels — ​Rural Resilience, Agriculture and Ecosystems, and Cross-Sector Mitigation — presented “pathways and strategies” to the council and members of the public. 

Proposals ranged from altering Act 250, Vermont’s land use and development law, to weatherizing homes, to implementing a “clean heat standard,” to broadening public transportation and creating incentives for Vermonters to buy electric vehicles. 

The Global Warming Solutions Act, enacted in 2020, requires Vermont to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. Emissions must be 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80% below by 2050. The Vermont Climate Council is responsible for developing a framework to carry out those reductions, and must finalize the plan by Dec. 1 of this year. 

All of the committees evaluated the state’s existing resources, then determined what else Vermonters will need to both reduce emissions and stay safe from the increasing hazards that climate change poses to the state. 

The Rural Resilience subcommittee — assigned to address the effect of climate change on rural transportation, electricity, housing and emergency services — posed five “pathways,” the first of which involved expanding the roles of local and regional organizations in planning efforts. 

The group also proposed changes in Vermont’s land use policies to create more opportunities for compact development in urban centers and increasing access to “safe, accessible, energy-efficient and affordable housing.” The latter would involve policy changes, supporting the elimination of housing discrimination, and funding rehabilitation efforts on privately owned rental units through a statewide inspection system. 

The Agriculture and Ecosystems subcommittee focuses on the role of Vermont’s working lands in preventing and adapting to climate change. Co-chairs Abbie Corse and Billy Coster outlined ways to manage lands so they sequester more carbon, underlined a need to protect farmland from development, and suggested using regulation and compensation to improve water and soil quality around farms. 

Corse and Coster also suggested updating Act 250 to reduce the fragmentation of land, and proposed forming an “Interagency Office of Climate” that would cut across agencies to address climate change. 

Bolstering local food markets and supporting agriculture workers will become key for resiliency, Corse said. She also highlighted the need to provide “technical assistance, capacity and resources” to farmers as they reduce emissions. About 16% of the state’s emissions come from agriculture. 

“A lot of the time, policy is made in isolation of the people who have to carry it out,” Corse said. 

Those same working lands also provide opportunities to produce green energy by installing solar panels or methane digesters, or by encouraging carbon-sucking plants to grow. Farmers could be compensated for those so-called ecosystem services.

The Cross-Sector Mitigation panel delivered the final and most weighty presentation Monday morning; its role is to find opportunities to limit emissions within the science and technology sectors. It presented recommendations for buildings, electricity, non-energy emissions and transportation.  

Recommendations for buildings focused on boosting the energy efficiency of Vermont’s homes and reducing carbon-heavy fuels for heating, such as propane. 

To address the latter challenge, David Farnsworth, who presented on buildings, suggested a “clean heat standard,” which would establish greenhouse gas limits for fuel companies that ramp up over time. Vermonters could choose between options such as heat pumps, pellet stoves, renewable natural gas and thermal solar, among others. 

“It’s important to recognize that, when you have a permanent standard, it allows the companies to make their choices as to how best to comply,” Farnsworth said. “It gives the opportunity to consumers to decide what works best for them, and how to engage with energy providers to achieve those choices.”

The electricity sub-panel outlined recommendations to eventually shift Vermont to a 100% renewable energy standard, from an existing 67% to 75% by 2032. 

The transportation sector accounts for the majority of Vermont’s emissions at 40%. Co-chairs of that task force, Johanna Miller and Gina Campoli, suggested offering incentives to buy electric vehicles and build  more charging stations. It will also be important, they said, to grow public transit options and ensure town centers are friendly for bikers and walkers. 

“We are a blip in a much larger transportation economy, and we have to work with other states and the federal government to achieve our goals,” Campoli said. “Regional coordination is a must.”

How are we making sure?

After the presentations, commenters from the public probed council members about the availability and sustainability of money for the various projects, much of which could come from one-time federal infrastructure money. Others wondered how the council would incorporate comments from the public before its rapidly-approaching deadline. 

The four-hour meeting started and ended with proposals and comments that focused on the inclusivity of adaptation and resilience efforts — ensuring that all Vermonters benefit from forthcoming protections against climate change and the incentives to reduce emissions. 

Corse, an organic dairy farmer who lives in Whitingham, said the council needs to focus on reaching communities that don’t typically have contact with government agencies. Some of the notable programs, she said, are still not reaching the people they need to reach. 

“Do we have metrics to know that we have reached those communities?” she said. “How are we making sure that we have gotten there, that those programs are reaching there?”

Creating a regulatory model, she said, “does not mean that small businesses are eradicated because they can’t meet those standards.” Those models have to be appropriately resourced, she said. 

Economic modeling for the council’s plan needs to be finalized by the end of October.