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February 10, 2020

Vermont Is Already Carbon Neutral

Vermont’s forests may already be taking more greenhouse gasses (GHGs) out of the atmosphere than all our cars, trucks, furnaces, generators, cows, etc. are emitting.  However, the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) - the one that calls for us to go much more quickly to electric cars and heat pumps than we are doing, gives us no credit for the carbon our trees put back in the soil, it just dings us for GHG emissions. The legislature is looking at spending even more money to achieve a goal that may already have been achieved.

Here are the numbers: Vermont Greenhouse Gas emissions in 1990 were 8.65 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents (MMTCO2e) . [Since CO2 isn’t the only greenhouse gas, all emissions are turned by formula into CO2 equivalents.]  According to the Comprehensive Energy Plan, we are supposed to get to 60% of the 1990 level or 4.87 MMTCO2e by 2030 and from 5% to 15% of the 1990 level by 2050. Since we were at 9.76 MMTCO2e in 2016, the last year reported, we must cut emissions by about half, 4.9 million tons, in the next ten years to make the 2030 target. That isn’t going to happen, of course, which is what the students are demonstrating about.

But Vermont isn’t really adding 9.76 MMTCO2e of GHGs to the air each year; far from it.  4.46 million acres of trees cover 75% of Vermont. Each acre of forest takes between 2.9 and 5.8 tons of CO2 out of the air annually, a process called CO2 sequestration. Our trees are sequestering between 13 and 26 million tons of CO2 each year. There is dispute over where in the range of GHG removed per acre our forests really are; but, at even at the low end of the range, our net annual GHG effect is a reduction of 3.24 million tons; we’re already more than carbon neutral (not even counting cropland which also removes some GHGs)!

Can we declare GHG victory and keep our cars and furnaces? Can we avoid millions and millions in subsidies and more taxes on fossil fuels? Not so fast. The Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan only counts emissions, not reductions like those trees make.  If we are going to fulfill that plan, which is a legislative mandate although so far toothless, we must reduce emissions without getting any credit for CO2 sequestration.

The CEP establishes interim goals for 2025 to assure that we reach the 2030 and 2050 CEP goals:

  • Reduce total energy consumption per capita by 15%
  • Meet 25% of the remaining energy need from renewable sources
  • 10% renewable transportation
  • 30% renewable buildings (I think they mean 30% of building thermal needs met by renewables)
  • 67% renewable electric power

Note that there is no goal for increasing CO2 sequestration even though increased sequestration can have more effect on atmospheric GHG levels than reducing emissions at a much lower cost per ton of net GHG improvement. If you believe that increasing atmospheric CO2 is putting life as we know it in terrible danger, then you want to reduce the level as fast as you can. The goal is not reduction of emissions or deployment of renewables; those are means and not an end. The goal is reduction in GHG concentration in the atmosphere. It turns out we can reduce atmospheric GHG much more quickly and cheaply by planting trees on uneconomical farms than with electric cars and heat pumps. But our own rules don’t let us count removing CO2 as progress towards our goal. They force us to be ineffectual and to raise costs for Vermonters. You might even suspect that these rules were written by people who have a stake in which means we use towards the goal of GHG reduction.

Our neighbors in heavily forested Maine are wrestling with the same issues. “Maine may already be ‘carbon neutral’” says a headline in the Maine Examiner. But, unlike Vermont, Maine’s plan does allow them to count increased forest sequestration towards their goal of reducing GHG.

According to the Press Herald: “Scientists also provided the first concrete estimates on how much carbon the state’s forests pull from the atmosphere each year, a critical factor in developing plans to meet Gov. Janet Mills’ commitment to make the state carbon neutral by 2045. Net forest growth and durable wooden goods made by the forest products industry are effectively offsetting three-quarters of Maine’s carbon emissions, scientists from the council’s technical advisory committee reported.”

The Vermont Legislature should change the Comprehensive Energy Plan to count the forest and the trees as Maine does and to give us an incentive to reduce net GHG emissions in the most effective way possible. Instead the legislature is debating how to put more teeth into and add expense to a plan which is not working and cannot work because it depends solely on emission reduction and ignores carbon sequestration.

[note: the original version of this post understated the range of annual carbon sequestration per forested acre and the total CO2 removed annually by Vermont trees. With t he correct numbers, it is clear that Vermont actually is carbon negative so I revised the title to sat that.]

See:

 Carbon myopia in Montpelier (on VTDigger)

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

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