Vermont’s Opportunity

by Steve Wright

The governor’s Climate Action Commission has a daunting task: link the principles of physics, political science, sociology, biology, economics, chemistry and atmospheric science to form a distinctly ‘Vermont’ response to climate change.

The commission is faced with two fundamental questions: (1) What will be our future energy sources? (2) What approaches will we take to reduce carbon dioxide emissions? How the commission goes about answering these questions is as important as the questions.

The governor’s goals for the Commission align with the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: global climate change is driven by human deposition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Burning fossil fuels is the primary activity producing those emissions.

Scientists and policymakers typically divide emissions into two categories: embedded and annual (calculated for emissions generated (i.e., fossil fuels burned) in a geographic region (e.g., state, country, city). The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates Vermont’s annual emissions as 8.0 million metric tons (mmt) of carbon dioxide, the lowest of the 50 states. Embedded emissions are those in everything produced elsewhere. For example, my ’09 Suzuki gets about 30 miles per gallon. The emissions from burning the gasoline are calculated by the EPA from the average miles per gallon and the average annual miles driven. The emissions to build the car are not included in Vermont’s annual emissions. They are considered embedded emissions. Another example: The emissions to extract, refine and transport the propane I use to cook dinner are embedded. The emissions from burning the propane are part of Vermont’s annual emissions. We have a lot to consider when it comes to counting fossil fuel emissions and the costs to reduce them.

Vermont’s annual emissions as a percentage of U.S. emissions are less than 2 tenths of 1 percent (8 mmt versus 5,500 mmt). Vermont’s emissions as a percentage of global emissions are two hundredths of 1 percent (8 mmt versus 36,000 mmt). Given the above, do you wonder if Vermont’s reduction in emissions can “make a difference” in the global climate? Your musings are justified. Expecting a measurable effect on global climate change is beyond reason. It does not mean we should ignore them. It does, however, raise questions regarding priorities, especially when spending taxpayers’ money.

What then is an achievable climate change response from Vermont? In other words, as we examine the climate change phenomenon, what can we do about it that is consistent with values that make the state what it is?

We have the best health statistics for people, so why would we compromise the health of our landscape?

We have a history of social justice, so why would we undermine the integrity of our small towns by limiting self determination?

Yes, we must act. Enduring action must strengthen the Vermont we prize and are determined to protect from the ravages of climate change. The work of the Climate Action Commission is an opportunity to build on those values thoughtfully and equitably.

You could say our capacity lies in our geography. Our value lies in modeling a climate change response through land-based actions. What might those actions be?

Protecting the state’s biological and physical aspects from further encroachment is at the core of this model. Vermont’s forests play a major role in carbon capture and sequestration. We also depend on forests for wildlife habitat; on their soils and vegetation to filter water; and, at upper elevations, we rely on them to protect aquatic systems at their source.

The recent findings of U.S. Forest Service researchers show Vermont’s forests take up (sequester) 4.39 mmt of carbon dioxide annually. Compare that to the emissions we generate — 8.0 mmt — and the importance of our forests as a climate change response is clear. The forests sequester more than one-half of what we generate annually.

Based on Forest Service estimates, my piece of Vermont — 87 acres — takes up about 80 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. I help keep it healthy through Vermont’s Current Use program. Current Use is an effective land management tool that can be part of our response to climate change for emissions reduction and long-term resilience. Should protecting forest integrity be our highest climate change response priority?

Former Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz defined resilience as “The ability to adapt to difficult situations and successfully overcome adversity.” The capacity of land and its web of life to resist change ensures high levels of resilience. A forested landscape covers 73 percent of Vermont (4.5 million acres) and provides an ecosystem service that benefits all Vermonters. This land cover gives Vermont the capacity and opportunity to model resilience-building for the global community. Our emissions may be puny, but our effect can be large.

For example, a recent report about California’s Healthy Soil Initiative includes this eye opener: “Calculations provided by scientists working with the Climate Cycle Institute estimate that spreading compost on San Diego’s 200,000-plus acres of grassland would sequester 3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas.”

By comparison, in Vermont, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture  (State Data USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service) there are nearly 140,000 acres of permanent pasture,  rangeland and 300,000-plus acres of hay/haylage land. We also have thousands of acres of turf. Amending these lands with a half-inch of compost could potentially sequester more than Vermont’s current annual emissions. The same action can increase resilience to withstand weather extremes, improve farm viability and reduce the cost of storm water management.

Policy that considers emissions reductions separate from energy supply could meet Governor Scott’s benchmarks for the Commission’s success: an “action plan” that reduces the state’s greenhouse gas emissions “while driving economic growth, setting Vermonters on a path to affordability and ensuring effective energy transition options exist for all Vermonters.”

Modeling resilience by working with nature is a contribution Vermonters can be proud of, producing enduring, equitable benefits from our climate change action.

Editor’s note: source citations furnished upon request to