The Effect of COVID-19 On Vermont Climate Legislation

Editor’s note: This is a guest author from Montpelier High School.

“I remember one time at a strike about two years ago, I stopped and looked around and was just instantly filled with joy…” says Sophia Flora, a freshman at Montpelier High School. “This year’s Earth Day was maybe not all it was hoped to be, but it’s great that some communities still took part in cleaning up, and spreading awareness about the changing environment.”Vermont students participate in a climate strike in March 2019 / Adam Blair (MHS 2019).

Flora is like many Vermont high schoolers, whose passionate activism has been foiled by all of the chaos caused by the novel coronavirus. Because of COVID-19, it has become easy to forget that our previous struggles are still relevant and important to recognize. Climate change is one of those.

Vermont legislators agree that youth voice plays a large role in the progression of climate legislation, and concerned students must be informed about what is happening at the Statehouse related to climate change.

At the moment, four main bills are circulating at the Statehouse, although the future of some has begun to be questioned. Below is a brief introduction to each bill.

Expanding Vermont’s Efficiency Utilities

Modernize Vermont’s Energy Efficiency Utilities (S.337) is a bill that focuses on allowing electric efficiency utilities — Burlington Electric Department and Efficiency Vermont — to focus their work more on increasing the usage of clean energy methods while also reducing electricity use.

“From an immediate standpoint, the Efficiency Modernization bill is going to save people money right off the bat,” says Ben Walsh, Climate and Energy Program Director at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG). “It’s taking dollars that are already being raised and putting them towards uses that have an even greater reduction in climate pollution, and in many cases even greater immediate economic savings.”

This bill will make alternative methods of heating more affordable for Vermont businesses and families and invest in clean energy solutions that are proven effective. A number of legislators wish the bill would have a larger effect; however, it is still seen as a step in the right direction.

This bill passed in the Senate on May 19th and is currently headed to the House Energy and Technology Committee.Energy Action Network handouts for the 2019 annual progress report for Vermont / March 11, 2020

Global Warming Solutions; Turning Goals Into Requirements

The Global Warming Solutions Act (H.688) sets the framework for all other main climate bills. It helps measure the advancement of each bill, while also demanding progress. This bill allows Vermonters to essentially sue the state government through court action only when a certain climate goal is not reached.

The bill’s ultimate goal is to make Vermont net zero by the year 2050, which in simple terms means that the amount of energy being consumed by Vermonters is roughly equivalent to the amount of renewable energy being produced within the state. This is a stretch compared to the 2012 recorded levels of 13 metric tons of carbon per capita.

“[The Global Warming Solutions Act] would benefit the environment because it would require that the state put in place programs [and] plans that drive down climate pollution…” says Lauren Hierl, Executive Director at the Vermont Conservation Voters. “It doesn’t set out exactly what those things would be but… we know if we’re driving fewer gas-powered cars, for example, that that’s good for climate change.”

This legislation passed in the house in late February with a 105 to 37 vote and is currently in the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Transportation and Climate Initiative; Getting on Board With the Northeast

The Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) is a policy proposal that would limit the number of carbon emissions contributed by vehicles using transportation fuels (such as gas and diesel) and enforce more renewable practices. The proposal is a collaboration of twelve Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states and the District of Columbia.

According to the Energy Action Network, between 1990 and 2014, seven states in the US (Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Hawaii, Connecticut, Maine, and Maryland) lowered their carbon emissions by double digits, while Vermont increased emissions by 7.1%. Graphics of Vermont’s progression with the Paris Agreement since 1990 / March 11, 2020

Using a cap and invest method, the proposal would determine a strict limit on transportation carbon emissions, which slowly decreases over time. Transportation fuel suppliers (i.e. gas stations and fuel companies) are required to attain auctioned allowances for every ton of carbon pollution that is produced by the fuel they sell. If a certain fuel company does not obtain the number of allowances it requires to stay in steady business, it would result in that fuel company or gas station having to charge more for gas.

The revenue collected from the auction goes to the state to be invested into more sustainable modes of transportation. The bill is ultimately a carbon tax that will increase the price of gas in Vermont.

Governor Phill Scott has been opposed to carbon taxes since 2016 and will not support proposals that increase expenses for rural and low-income Vermonters. Over the past few months, this proposal has been slowly deteriorating and legislators do not expect to see introduced legislation on it in Vermont, in the near future, or possibly at all.

100% Renewable by 2030

The 100% Renewable bill (S.267) would implement a statewide 100% renewable energy standard by 2030. The bill has a primary goal of eliminating the usage of fossil fuels (such as coal, heating oil, propane, and gasoline) in the state of Vermont and replacing them with clean energy-powered alternatives.

100% Renewable also urges to increase the availability of clean energy for Vermonters, to create more environmentally efficient communities. The bill’s final goal is to create more local jobs and increase regional entrepreneurship to keep more money within Vermont’s local economy.

This bill passed the Senate Finance Committee but it is unclear whether it will move this year.

The Effects of COVID-19 and Priorities for 2020

Since most are still working from home, there are fewer opportunities for climate advocates to speak out about the importance of climate legislation in Vermont, and we have already seen a few of these bills fall apart as they become less relevant in these rapidly changing times.

Only one of these bills (Expanding Vermont’s Efficiency Utilities, Global Warming Solutions, Transportation Climate Initiative, and 100% Renewable by 2030) is likely to pass by the end of the legislative session. Vermont climate advocates and legislator’s priority remains to be the Global Warming Solutions Act, which is currently in the Senate Committee of Natural Resources. Members of the Vermont Climate Caucus believe that if the committee makes it their center of attention, it will be able to pass and become legislation this year.

Sarah Copeland-Hanzas is a state representative from district Orange-2. “We are making Global Warming Solutions Act our number one priority because it is critical that we put our climate aspirations into law as requirements,” she said. “Otherwise it will always be politically easier to fail at meeting our targets than to make tough decisions that will help us reach them.”

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