Tom Evslin: We can become carbon neutral without bankrupting the state

This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.

The Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), which was passed by the Legislature in the last session over Gov. Scott’s veto, contains a requirement that the Vermont Climate Council create a Carbon Inventory for Vermont. A draft of that inventory called Carbon Budget from a subcommittee of the Council is now available. If the full Council pays as much attention to its own carbon budget as it should, it will realize that there is a doable path to carbon neutrality which has the twin benefits of being achievable and not bankrupting Vermont.

Here are three headline numbers from the carbon budget:

  1. In 2020 it is estimated that burning of fossil fuel for energy will add 8.6 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere (MMT CO2-e).
  2. In 2018 (the last year we have information for), Vermont forests REMOVED 5.2 MMT CO2-e from the atmosphere. (I and others have argued that this number should be much higher but the number in the budget is estimated according to standards and methodologies which are generally accepted nationally and blessed by the UN so let’s go with it). The photosynthesis which uses sunlight to turn atmospheric CO2 into carbon which is stored in the ground, in the trunk and branches of our treesand oxygen which goes back into the air is a form of carbon sequestration.
  3. With other puts-and-takes, the budget estimates that current annual NET emissions – the net amount of CO2-e Vermont adds to the atmosphere – is currently “only” 5.65 MMT CO2-e.

5.65 MMT of reduction is a much easier goal to hit than 8.6. Simply increasing the amount of forested land by converting uneconomic dairy farms to trees and better management of the 75% of Vermont which is already forested would take us within spitting distance even given the conservative carbon accounting in the budget.

But what is our goal?

Section 592 of GWSA says:

The Plan shall include specific initiatives, programs, and strategies that will:
(1) reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation, building, regulated utility, industrial, commercial, and agricultural sectors;
(2) encourage smart growth and related strategies;
(3) achieve long-term sequestration and storage of carbon and promote best management practices to achieve climate mitigation, adaption, and resilience on natural working lands;
(4) achieve net [emphasis mine] zero emissions by 2050 across all sectors…

That seems to be pretty clear and has an appropriate emphasis on how we actually affect the atmosphere. However, Section 578 says:

Vermont shall reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from within the geographical boundaries of the State and those emissions outside the boundaries of the State that are caused by the use of energy in Vermont …  by:
(1) not less than 26 percent from 2005 greenhouse gas emissions by January 1, 2025…
(2) not less than 40 percent from 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by January 1, 2030 pursuant to the State’s 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan; and
(3) not less than 80 percent from 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by January 1, 2050 pursuant to the State’s 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan.

Note that there is nothing in Section 578 which talks about “net” reductions. This section isn’t about effect on the atmosphere; it is about justifying huge expenditures for incentives for electric vehicles, heat pumps, solar panels, and wind turbines! If we squander money on the short-term unachievable goals of Section 578, we won’t be able to reach the long-term goals of Section 529 which are the only ones that matter if you’re concerned about the effect on climate of atmospheric CO2.

So what’s going to happen?

The Climate Council will probably make recommendations to the legislature which almost exclusively rely on elimination of fossil fuels to achieve the short-term goals as section 578 seems to require. They will largely ignore the carbon already being sequestered by Vermont forests and the potential for much more of the same.

This year the State will have enormous amounts of federal funds available for “climate change.” Instead of using those funds to make lasting change, they will be frittered away on subsidies for things like electric cars (going to happen anyway and make less difference than you would think) and cold weather heat pumps (haven’t proven effective). The funds that are doled out to favored industries won’t be available for actual long term effective reduction of emissions. Eventually the federal funds will run out and the incentive programs will either die or, worse, be replaced by mandates.

What should happen?

The Climate Council mandate allows it to suggest changes in legislation. It should suggest that the language in Section 578 be dropped since it unwisely constrains the solutions available to us and is not about actual environmental effect. It should insist that mitigation strategies and expenditures be weighed by the net amount of atmospheric CO2-e reduced per dollar spent. The Carbon Budget makes it clear we can get from here to there, that we can become carbon neutral without bankrupting the state.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Tony Webster
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7 thoughts on “Tom Evslin: We can become carbon neutral without bankrupting the state

  1. This article and all the responses posted all make sense, the problem is that Vermont’s
    Climate Council just won’t listen to any common sense reasoning.

    They have been given their marching orders for an agenda and any common sense reasoning
    or financial stability is not in the equation……no matter the cost to the state or its citizens !!

    Wake up people, they don’t care.

  2. Tom,

    Your sequestration is too high.

    In the below articles are URLs referring to VT forest Department and US Forest Service sequestration data, which indicate 4.39 million metric ton, sequestered by about 4.5 million acres, in 2015.
    The methodology follows EPA guidelines.

    EXCERPT from

    VERMONT FORESTS AND CO2 ABSORPTION
    https://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/vermont-forests-and-co2-absorption

    After 2015, the method of calculating CO2 absorption by Vermont’s forests, etc., was changed to conform with EPA and international standards.

    As a result, the higher values of the old method were replaced with the lower values of the new method.
    For example, 8.23 million metric ton in 2015 (old) became 4.39 million Mt in 2015 (new), about 47% less.

    If Vermont were to reduce overall CO2 to lower levels, then forests would absorb an increasing percentage of the overall CO2, if we don’t trample on the forests, i.e., leave them alone to do their job. See URLs.

    http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/dartmouth-biomass-boiler-emissions-equivalent-to-351-wood-fired
    http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/vermont-is-harvesting-wood-far-in-excess-annual-net-addition-of
    http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/dartmouth-reconsidering-whether-to-build-biomass-plant

    Also the CO2 reduction of heat pumps and EVs, is very significantly less than the numbers bandied about by Energy Action Network.

    HEAT PUMPS REDUCE VERY LITTLE CO2 IN MY VERMONT HOUSE, AS THEY DO IN ALMOST ALL NEW ENGLAND HOUSES
    https://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/heat-pumps-are-money-losers-in-my-vermont-house-as-they-are-in

    POOR ECONOMICS AND MINIMAL CO2 REDUCTION OF ELECTRIC VEHICLES IN NEW ENGLAND
    https://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/poor-economics-of-electric-vehicles-in-new-england

      • Jay,
        What I wrote is not even MY logic.

        I merely copied what I found on official Forest Service and EPA websites.

        The URLs are in my articles.

        There are people who make up their own facts out of thin air.

        The 8.23 million metric ton of VT forest sequestration, was used for many years by Vermont government entities.

        That number was concocted by the University of Vermont, or an associated entity.

        At one point, I had the URLs, but I can no longer find them.
        The reports have disappeared.

        It is amazing the 8.23 number has lasted this long.

        At least ten years ago, I questioned the VT forest dept.
        The response was they were looking into it.

        Maine, which has a lot of fir forests, used about 1 metric ton per acre for sequestration. Just google.

      • Jay,

        Most all who write commentaries and articles do not respond to what those posting comments say. And perhaps that is as it should be.

        Individuals responding to commentaries make often thoughtful and relevant points that a reader can then take into consideration. However, the comment section, is not intended to be a place for debate ( much as some of us enjoy the spirited back and forth) and we should not expect those writing commentary for TNR, who have already had their say, to necessarily engage in more.

        • Re: “we should not expect those writing commentary for TNR, who have already had their say, to necessarily engage in more”.

          Why not? Since when should an author not clarify or substantiate what they’ve presented?

          Yours is yet another false dichotomy, if not blatant hypocrisy, John. This opinion of yours, a response to my commentary (and, therefore, contradictory in itself) is anything but the generally accepted edict you would have us believe.

          It is, in my opinion, the continuing discussion that educates us. When I publish a position, I’m looking for feedback. And you, quite often, respond. Therein is the lesson.

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