Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tom Hughes, who is the campaign director of Energy Independent Vermont, a coalition of Vermont businesses, nonprofits, low-income service providers, students, clergy and academics working to price carbon pollution and strengthen the Vermont economy.
Last week Gov. Phil Scott took another step towards real climate action. His signed an executive order creating a Vermont Climate Action Commission and reaffirmed the climate and clean energy goals set forth in the 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan.
In this era of federal backsliding, Gov. Scott has sided with the facts. Further, he stacked the commission with thoughtful Vermont leaders experienced in building consensus to get tough things done. There doesn’t appear to be a climate science denier among them.
He tasked the commission with developing a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that:
• Spurs economic activity, inspires and grows Vermont businesses, and puts Vermonters on a path to affordability;
• Engages all Vermonters, so that no individual or group of Vermonters is unduly burdened; and
• Provides solutions for all Vermonters to reduce their carbon impact and save money.
These are thoughtful parameters, though there should be one more: The commission’s recommended solutions must be commensurate to the challenge.
As the new commissioners will soon learn, despite decades of lofty rhetoric and good intentions, Vermont’s total carbon emissions are up since 1990. We are not on pace to meet any of the state’s three sets of greenhouse gas reduction goals: the goals that Gov. Scott voted for as senator, the Paris Climate Accord goals he committed to by joining the U.S. Climate Alliance last month, or the Comprehensive Energy Plan goals he reaffirmed in his executive order last week.
In order to achieve any of our climate goals the commission must recommend more comprehensive strategies than have been tried to date. Without bolder recommendations – and swift action by the governor and General Assembly – the naysayers who mock gubernatorial commissions as the place that good ideas go to die will be proved right once again.
If the commissioners and the governor are serious about their assignment, there is an effective climate strategy that conforms to all of the governor’s conditions and is working elsewhere: carbon pollution pricing.
As President George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wrote in the New York Times, a price on carbon pollution would “unleash a wave of innovation to develop technologies, lower the costs of clean energy and create jobs.” Want proof?
• California implemented a price on carbon pollution in 2013, and has created 1.5 million new jobs since then. That’s almost three times as many new jobs in California as there are Vermonters.
• The Canadian province of British Columbia introduced a carbon pollution price in 2008 and their economy’s growth has outpaced every other Canadian province the last three years running. In fact, the policy has been so successful that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is implementing a nationwide carbon price next year.
• And look no further than Vermont. Republican Gov. Jim Douglas authorized Vermont’s first price on carbon pollution in the electric sector by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – and it is working. The economies in the nine RGGI states are growing faster – and emissions from the electric sector are falling faster – than in those states outside the compact. As the Vermont 2017 Clean Energy Industry Report notes, “since 2013, clean energy employment has grown by 29 percent in Vermont, which amounts to a total of just over 19,000 jobs.” You can’t argue with that success.
There is a reason that economists from across the political spectrum – distinguished number crunchers like Joseph Stiglitz, Lawrence Summers, Jeffrey Sachs, Robert Reich, Gregory Mankiw, Martin Feldstein – all support carbon pollution pricing: It’s smart economics.
By returning the carbon pollution revenue to Vermonters in the form of tax cuts or dividends every Vermonter would be engaged. We would have both the incentive and the means to transition to the cleaner, more advanced technologies of the 21st century – growing jobs and putting many more Vermonters to work.
Finally, when it comes to saving Vermonters money, the sooner we transition off of fossil fuels the better. Even at today’s low gasoline prices, it costs about one-third less to drive an electric vehicle in Vermont than one powered by an internal combustion engine. An electric heat pump delivers BTUs to a home or business more cost-effectively than an oil burning furnace. Carbon pollution pricing is a market-driven solution that encourages adoption of these and other low-carbon, low-cost technologies that save Vermonters money.
The transition to the clean energy future is a win-win for the Vermont economy and our climate.
If admitting there is a problem is the first step to fixing it, then Gov. Scott took that step last week. The Climate Action Commission has a critical assignment – and an opportunity. Identifying and advancing the policy solutions that meet the measure of the problem, like carbon pricing, will turn the challenge Gov. Scott has put forward into the job-creating, money-saving, energy-innovating opportunity it provides.