The rap on the 2019 Vermont legislature is that they didn’t get much done—notably, for climate activists, any kind of carbon pricing scheme – or the “Global Warming Solutions Act,” which would require the state government to act on Vermont’s climate pollution goals. So when I saw a photo of the Climate Caucus meeting post-session, I sent a message to my senator, Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, to ask what they were all looking so proud of. She got back to me with a long list, which included additional funding for weatherization and electric vehicles, a high-profile bill to ban single-use plastic, and a bill that would allow schools to get more of their energy from solar power.
A deeper dig, courtesy of VPIRG’s Ben Edgerly Walsh, reveals that the weatherization and EV efforts fall well short of an emergency response. The one-time, approximately $4.5 million increase in weatherization funding for low- and moderate-income people will tighten up about 1400 homes. Sounds good, but according to an analysis by the Energy Action Network, Vermont needs to weatherize 90,000 homes by 2025 to hit the Paris Accord goals. In that context, 1400 looks like a pretty small bite. Most people don’t know that our climate pollution (greenhouse gas emissions) is going up, but in reality it’s up 16% from 1990 levels, based on the most recent data. That’s a huge part of why we see legislative action as inadequate – we’re not just not hitting our targets, we’re going in the wrong direction.
Similarly, we need 90,000 new electric vehicles (Evs) to hit Paris Accord levels. This year the legislature provided incentives for approximately 440 EVs. At this pace we will fall miserably short. That’s frustrating. The reality of the climate emergency ran head-on into political reality, and political reality won—though that’s probably not how politicians see it. The legislature worked hard to get these changes through, while threading the needle to produce bills a Republican governor would sign.
To the governor’s credit, he did sign them, as well as the bill restricting the outdoor use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been implicated in pollinator deaths. Hidden in the list is one truly big deal, S.30, a law that will phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
HFCs are used in refrigeration and air-condioning. They came into use after the signing of the Montreal Protocol, as they do not destroy atmospheric ozone. However, they turned out to be a potent greenhouse gas. The Kigali Amendment, negotiated in 2016, would phase them out worldwide; however, the Trump Administration has not brought the amendment forward for ratification. States are taking up the cause, and Vermont now joins California, Washington, Maryland, Connecticut, and New York in the phase-out. Ultimately all 24 states in the U.S. Climate Alliance are expected to join this initiative.
The bill passed this year makes Vermont a small part in a pretty big deal. Project Drawdown identifies refrigerant management as the No.1-ranked global warming solution. It’s not photogenic or cuddly, but it’s powerful and fast, because HFCs are short-lived gases. Phasing them out globally can avoid an additional ¼ to ½ degree Celsius of global warming by 2100—in the context of an overall goal of holding warming below 1.5 to 2 degrees. This will happen at no extra cost to consumers, and should add $5 billion to U.S. exports, and create 150,000 new jobs nationwide according to the refrigeration industry, which supports it.
Refrigerant management is the unsexy solution, so it’s no wonder it has gotten little attention. But the legislature and governor deserve our thanks for enacting this law, which is in line with the efforts of the Obama administration. As temperatures rise, cooling technology will proliferate, but as Project Drawdown notes, “The Kigali accord ensures a step change is coming….”
The plastics bill, described by National Geographic as the nation’s “most comprehensive” also addresses the climate emergency. “If current trends continue,” Edgerly Walsh said, “global plastic use could be the climate equivalent of over 600 coal plants in annual emissions by 2050,” citing a recent study by the Center for International Environmental Law. Vermont, following the lead of its own towns (such as Brattleboro) is reducing that flow.
More is needed, much more, but much was accomplished as well, which doesn’t always happen with divided government. Good on ya, folks. Keep at it!
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT since 1984, www.jessiehaas.com.