Monthly Archives: October 2019

How Climate Change is Affecting Vermont and What Vermonters Are Doing About It

Driving down route 14 in mid-October, it’s hard not to let your eyes wander and take in the beauty of the changing colors. The vibrant oranges, yellows, and red leaves mixed in with the Douglas Ferns is an iconic site in Vermont that brings thousands of “leaf peepers” from all over the country to the Green Mountain state. Along with the colorful scenery, people come to Vermont for their maple syrup, skiing, hiking, camping, some of the country’s best craft beers, and to experience life, simplified. But climate change may pose a threat to Vermont’s main economic engine, the tourism industry, and the lifestyle that typifies Vermont.

VT Photo

Figure 1: Route 100 scenic byway in Vermont during fall demonstrating the beauty that leaf peepers come to see every year.

Vermont’s climate is changing, with increased temperatures and unpredictable precipitation patterns. The rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns are going to increase the intensity of floods and droughts in the state. The average annual precipitation in the Northeast increased 10 percent from 1895 to 2011, and precipitation from heavier storms increased 70 percent since 1958. For example, in 2011, Tropical Storm Irene was a 1-in-1,000 year storm that caused major flooding and damaged infrastructure across Vermont. After Irene, Vermont passed legislation to increase the government’s role in flood response and launched a series of websites to make residents aware of its programs. Some municipalities bought out homeowners in the worst devastation zones to prevent future damage. Roads and bridges where rebuilt to withstand future floods for similar sized storms. The state’s major utility, Green Mountain Power, is working to decentralize the grid to make power outages easier to contain and recover. Vermont responded with preparedness planning and a commitment to make Vermont strong, but this is more difficult because of the increasing uncertainty associated with climate change and its’ impacts.

Irene Stockbridge

Figure 2: In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene caused major flooding and damage across Vermont, including this section of Route 107 in Stockbridge, VT. These types of storms and damage are becoming more common because of climate change.

In the next century, the average precipitation is likely to increase during winter and spring, with no change in the summer or fall. These climate shifts will cause changes in Vermont’s ecosystems, agriculture industry, human health, and winter tourism, and will impact the lives of Vermonters.

The changing climate threatens Vermont’s ecosystems in a variety of ways. The increased temperatures cause wildflowers, trees, and migratory birds to bloom and arrive earlier during the springtime. Species that have not adjusted to these changes face increased competition for their primary food sources with species that have adapted to the warmer temperatures. Lastly, climate change could also change the temperatures of the streams, causing the streams to run dry and harm the brook trout and brown trout populations. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department (VFWD) are currently managing both types of trout with monitoring and evaluating the existing trout populations. The VFWD will participate in stocking techniques if they determine the fish populations are too high or low in certain areas.


Figure 3: Brook (top) and brown (bottom) trout populations are but some of the species in a Vermont ecosystem susceptible to impacts associated with climate change.

Climate change will also impact the Vermont agriculture industry, from cattle and dairy cows to maple syrup. Vermont’s dairy industry provides 70 percent of the state’s farm revenue, and climate change may reduce the output by $700 million. The higher temperatures will cause the cows to eat less, thus producing less milk. The warmer temperatures are shifting sugar maples farther into Canada, affecting both the maple syrup and tourism industry. The Vermont Climate Assessment project states that by the end of the century, the northeastern forest will be dominated by oaks and hickories, with the maples and other trees driven north. Both the dairy and agriculture industry are doing their part to help reduce the impacts of climate change. Vermont’s agriculture and dairy are mitigating greenhouse gas emission, reducing organic waste, and using methane recovery technology to do their part. Dairy and agriculture operations are doing this through the installation of anaerobic digesters on their land, which not only help mitigate GHGs and reduce organic waste, but also can provide a sustainable energy source for on-site needs.

Climate change will also amplify effects on the human health in Vermont, especially children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor. The warmer weather will increase disease-carrying insect populations and certain respiratory conditions. For example, ticks carrying Lyme disease will become active earlier with the warmer winters, lengthening the season and increasing the potential for transmission. The Vermont Department of Health is attempting to prevent the increased spread of disease through educational outreach on how to prevent tick bites.

Lastly, climate change will have a significant impact on winter tourism in Vermont. The warmer winters could bring more rain and less snow to Vermont. Declined snowfall amounts would shorten the ski season, severely impacting the economy. With shorter ski seasons, “ski resorts” are transitioning to “adventure resorts,” diversifying their portfolios and offering “off-season” activities (e.g., mountain biking, fly fishing, festivals, concerts) to make up for lost days.


Figure 4: As ski resorts become adventure resorts, activities and programs like mountain biking and summer camps bring fun to future generations of Vermonters and resiliency to one of Vermont’s top industries.

The very way of life that typifies Vermont is undergoing transition due to the already occurring, and anticipated, impacts of warmer winters, increasing precipitation, and droughts. In true Vermont fashion, the impacts of climate change have been met with a resilient and industrious response from various sectors. But this Brave Little State still has room to shift from a response-based approach to proactive planning so it can continue to thrive in the future.

Seagrass – The Unsung Hero

Seagrasses are found up and down the coast of the United States and in many other parts of the world. Together they form meadows that are productive ecosystems, providing food and shelter to a wide range of animals. One important, often overlooked, function of seagrasses relates to their impact on the world’s climate.

One of climate changes greatest challenges is limiting the amount of carbon that is in our atmosphere. One mitigation technique is to revitalize or create carbon sinks. Carbon sinks fight climate change by capturing and absorbing carbon dioxide and preventing it from being released into the atmosphere. Seagrasses act as a surprisingly efficient carbon sink.

Seagrass meadows, per square kilometer, are able to store up to 83,000 metric tons of carbon; whereas a typical terrestrial forest, per square kilometer, is only able to store about 30,000 metric tons of carbon. That means seagrass meadows can sequester over twice the amount of carbon a terrestrial forest can given the same amount of space.

Unfortunately, seagrass meadows only occupy less than 0.2% of the world’s oceans. Despite their underwhelming presence, they are still responsible for over 10% of all carbon sequestered in the ocean per year.

Seagrass meadows’ ability to act as a carbon sink are threatened in a couple different ways.

One major threat to seagrass meadows is over-exploitation. Sharks that routinely patrol these ecosystems are being unsustainably exploited for a number of reasons. Some fishermen catch sharks solely for their fins. The fins are then sold to make shark fin soup. Other times, sharks are incidentally the product of bycatch. Whatever the reason, shark populations are drastically declining, and are becoming more threatened with each take.

SharkSharks are important to the seagrass meadows because they feed on the animals below them in the food chain. As apex predators, they feed on animals that would otherwise eat the seagrass. The sharks maintain a healthy ecosystem by limiting the populations of their prey, thus allowing the meadows to remain at healthy levels.

Another major threat to seagrasses are heatwaves. Seagrasses are temperature sensitive, and a strong heatwave (which are becoming more abundant with the rise of extreme weather due to climate change) can seriously decimate an entire meadow. Once the seagrass density drastically dips, it is difficult for the meadow to recover because it creates increased competition for all the fish, dugong, and other animals that eat the seagrass.

The lack of sharks compounds the rebounding issues. Without the threat of sharks patrolling the meadows, animals are able to further decimate the seagrasses because there is no threat of predation.

One potential solution would be to follow in the footsteps of Palau. In 2009, Palau became the first country to create a shark sanctuary and ban shark fishing in its exclusive economic zone. This move protected about 240,000 square miles of ocean (about the size of France). The presence of sharks maintains the health of the ecosystem and allows the seagrasses to rebound in the event of a decline due to some climatic event, like a heat wave.

This will not provide the solution to climate change. However, protecting sharks, and thus protecting seagrasses, will hopefully allow for the expansion of an efficient carbon sink, creating a positive feedback cycle and increasing its positive effects.

Vermont may be the second least populated state in the US, but on climate change, Vermonters should keep a global perspective

The United States, alone in the world, will officially complete its exit from the Paris Agreement a little over a year from now, in November 2020. In the wake of the federal government’s retreat, a host of individual states formed the United States Climate Alliance. This coalition of subnational governments commits, notwithstanding national policy, to “implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement” as well as “track and report progress to the global community.”

Vermont is today one of 24 Climate Alliance states on board with the expressed goal to achieve an 18-25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 2005 levels by 2025. And that’s not the only commitment Vermont has made to participate in the global climate mitigation effort. This small state signed on to the “Under2 MOU” coalition, which includes over 150 regional, state, or county-level actors, in addition to a handful of states, aligned under the objective to reduce emissions to 83-96 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. Vermont also belongs to a conference of New England governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers that have committed to reductions 45-54 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.1

Alongside these collective commitments, Vermont has set itself statutory goals. A 2005 legislative directive of greenhouse gas goals called for reductions, compared to 2005, of 37 percent by 2012, 58 percent by 2028, and 79 percent by 2050 (“if practicable”). The 2012 goal passed unachieved,2 but this failure clearly did not squelch Vermont’s zeal for continuing to express its commitments to climate change mitigation. Importantly, the collaborative targets agreed to in the regional conference, the Climate Alliance, or Under2 are—in the mold of global negotiations—a collective effort. Vermont’s own ambitious carbon goals are but one piece of the puzzle in achieving these regional and group targets. The state’s statutory plans that parallel its outside commitments are a constructive expression of solidarity in actions taken to achieve them.

All of this is to illustrate that, even with the absence of the US as a force for climate action on the global stage, Vermont has a regional and international voice and its own similar role to play in establishing and communicating mitigation contributions. At the same time, Vermont is concededly small. When considered unattached from national US climate goals, perspectives on the state’s achievements become more difficult to frame: Should Vermont’s ability to decouple economic growth from emissions be compared to that in California3? What role does a state of less than 650,000 residents play in global climate change mitigation commitments?

On the global stage, dozens of governments for even less populous nation-states participate in negotiations, express their competencies and desires, and set ambitious targets. Perhaps it would be illustrative for Vermonters to consider, through the global perspective, where their small government is situated in the global picture as well as its relationship to national efforts. Concerned citizens here should continue to push their government to take ambitious action, and some international framing may be thought-provoking. Rather than considering its efforts individually, regionally, or on the backs of two dozen other democratic-leaning US states, how would Vermonters feel their state ought to comport itself if it were striving to mitigate climate change alongside global partners of similar size?

Take a couple of examples:

Here sits Vermont alone at the table. The state has a per capita GDP of around $50 thousand, and per capita carbon dioxide emissions of just under 10 metric tons/year. This puts Vermont on only slightly different comparative footing than the US at large (about $60 thousand and 16.5 tons), but it’s certainly a much smaller administrative and geographic entity.

Next to Vermont arrives Luxembourg. With a population of around 615,000, the state contains only slightly fewer people than Vermont. They are also some of the world’s richest; Luxembourg’s per capita GDP of about $115 thousand tops the charts. The nation belongs to the European Union, with its ambitious and binding emissions reduction targets, but it’s hardly a regional beacon of success. The country has lenient fuel taxes relative to much of the EU and per capita emissions of 16.5 metric tons of CO2 per year. And Luxembourg’s similar quantity of citizens is packed into about ten percent of Vermont’s land area, a useful image for those regularly traversing Vermont’s farm roads and interstate highways with a mind towards transportation and pollution targets.

Finally, enter the Solomon Islands.4 To Vermont’s approximately 160 miles of Lake Champlain shoreline, the Solomon Islands would add thousands more; the country contains some 2500 miles of coastline, but its land area is actually quite comparable, at around 11 thousand square miles to Vermont’s 9.5. This island nation obviously experiences a dramatically different climate, history and economic reality from the Green Mountain State, but with an only slightly smaller population, at around 600,000, it’s worth considering the similar administrative statures of the two entities. The Solomon Islands have a per capita GDP of a little over $2 thousand and annual per capita CO2 emissions of less than 1.5 tons. Additionally, with sea level rise and other effects, the Solomon Islands are poised to bear the brunt of looming climate change damages.

What if these several entities dominated the global climate change debate? They’d actually be a decent miniature of the dynamics we face in reality, especially if we added a rapidly developing area like Macau (population ~672,000). How would Vermonters feel about their state’s achievements and commitments if it they were held up against these three, similarly-sized global partners alone? Recent reports5 in Vermont have made clear some of the state’s shortcomings when it comes to concrete actions to achieve its stated mitigation goals. For example, Vermont would need to turn some 90,000 of the cars on its road electric if it were to meet its “Paris Agreement” target (there are currently fewer than 3,000). And unlike some of its neighboring states, Vermont’s energy-related emissions have continued to grow and remain significantly higher than 1990 levels.

Vermont may be inclined to see its climate mitigation contributions as featherweight compared to the heavy lifting of other progressive states like California or the now-abdicated responsibilities of the US as a whole. But Vermonters should not be shy to take a look at the engagement of other world governments responsible for areas of a similar size and population. Many of them have made similarly ambitious commitments and face similar struggles to conform their hopeful futures to activities that will avert our worst climatic consequences. It would behoove the citizens of this small state to keep a global perspective and to recognize that they ought to continue thinking, and most importantly acting, big.

The NEG/ECP pact compares its targets to 1990 levels, but Vermont guidance such as the Governor’s Climate Action Committee frequently reference these goals in terms of 2005 comparisons.

  1. Carbon emissions actually increased by 4% during that period instead. For more information on Vermont’s current emissions status and goals, see the Energy Action Network study linked below.
  2. The Energy Action Network report (below), among others, compares Vermont’s links between economic growth and carbon emissions to efforts in California, Quebec, and British Columbia, for example. How comparable are these economies in terms of scale?
  3. Sources of the above information and much more about the Solomon Islands response to climate change can be found in the “Nationally Determined Contributions” document they filed with the UNFCCC under the Paris Agreement. Vermonters should be keen to think about this and other similarly-sized countries’ stated efforts and challenges, as well as how they interact with other coalitions and larger negotiating blocks. Such perspective might lead Vermont to new ideas about how to engage without the United States doing the talking for it. The EU and US NDCs can also be viewed here and here.
  4. For more information about Vermont’s climate commitments, consider checking out the following reports:
    1. The Energy Action Network’s 2018 Annual Progress Report
    2. The Governor’s Climate Action Commission’s 2018 Recommendations
    3. Vermont Department of Environmental Quality’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory
    4. An Analysis of Decarbonization Methods in Vermont, requested by the state legislature in 2018

When Climate Change Really Stinks: Septic Impacts

What does climate change mean for your toilet? A new report from the International Panel on Climate Change has policymakers and journalists from around the world scrambling to decode the impacts of rising sea levels and growing storms. Among potential casualties: the venerable New England institution of the flushing toilet.

Around 55 percent of Vermont households rely on septic systems for waste treatment – that’s the highest level in the country – and about 50 percent of the homes in New Hampshire and Maine fall into the same category. But climate change threatens to make these systems obsolete, and to understand why, it’s necessary to understand how a septic system works.

Most septic systems come in three parts: a toilet, a tank, and a field. When you flush, the stuff in the toilet flows into the tank, where the solid material separates from the water. Then the water flows into a field, where remaining impurities are broken down naturally. Or that’s how it’s supposed to work.

If the field becomes totally saturated, either by spring slush or a fall flood, the system reverses itself. Water flows back from the field into the tank, and can back up all the way into your house, potentially causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage, not to mention odor, inconvenience, and health risks.

Though insulated from the impacts of warming oceans and rising seas, Vermonters have historically congregated along the state’s rivers and valleys, and they’re not totally beyond the reach of oceanic weather influences. In 2011, Hurricane Irene dumped up to 11 inches of water on Vermont, and caused $13.5 billion in damage across the U.S. That was bad enough, but over the next century, the Green Mountains stand to become a lot wetter.

Congress anticipates that as New England warms up, it will shift from a “cold, snowy winter” to a “warm, slushy” one. Goodbye, skiing, and goodbye, fall foliage. But solid waste is a less-popular topic of discussion. The 2018 National Climate Assessment predicts increased spring and fall rainfall across New England. Deforestation, as might result from climate change, can also lead to a rising water table. Together with the predictions of the IPCC report, these documents paint a bleak scenario for sanitation.

The IPCC predicts not only an increase in hurricanes, but an amplification of their severity, precipitation, and potentially their northerly range. It also forecasts an increase in extreme weather patterns, such as El Niño and the notably wet La Niña. More threats loom along New England’s 473-mile coastline, where rising seas (exceeding the global average) may be accompanied by more extreme wave heights and tidal events, raising the coastal water table. All these factors threaten to multiply floods.

Floods, in turn, multiply septic failures. A study in Connecticut found that just one inch of rainfall could significantly increase the likelihood of developing a stomach illness after swimming (see the National Climate Assessment), a finding consistent with the possibility of septic contamination.

Last year, the Conservation Law Foundation issued a report examining the effects of climate change on New England’s septic systems, and on the potential public-health impact of their failure.

“New England states are not adequately addressing rising groundwater and other climate change impacts when regulating the location, operation, or inspection of septic systems,” the report concluded. “Residents may not see the effluent, but they will smell it.” New England’s coastal states will be hardest-hit, but Vermont “is still expected to experience an increase in extreme precipitation events, flooding, increased rises in temperatures, and erosion, which could have serious consequences on infrastructure like septic systems.”

For now, the atlas at Flood Ready Vermont can show Vermonters whether their homes lie on a marked floodplain, and the EPA provides guidelines on handling a flooded septic tank.


Around the U.S., septic systems have generally declined in popularity, but in New England they continue to be installed with many new homes. Infographic courtesy of

How Renewable Energy Can Help Small Island Nations Like Palau Achieve Energy Access and Sustainable Development

Rising seas, intense storms, increased droughts, and fires are just some of the issues that people in small island nations worry about on a day-to-day basis; on top of just trying to survive in this world. Mothers must worry about whether their children will have food, shelter, proper satiation, and if the lights will turn on (if that’s even an option for them). Think about how different your own life would be without the electricity we have—if the lights didn’t work, your computer didn’t exist, or not being able to store your food in refrigerators. This is the reality for more than 1.2 billion people, who have little or no access to energy. When access to energy increases, so does access to clean water, education, and more reliable jobs, which improves the overall health of people.

Small island nations are trying to change the narrative when it comes to energy. Energy is vital to our survival in the 21st century. Traditional sources like coal, oil, and gas are not practical solutions to solve a small island nation’s need for energy because they put other critical sectors at risks, such as agriculture and fisheries, tourism, and other industries. Also, because islands are rather isolated, their markets would not benefit from affordable prices that traditional energy markets bring. The isolated market issue is one of the many constraints that small island nations face when it comes to energy access. Other constraints include limited natural resources, environmental vulnerability, and dependency on foreign sources of energy.

Countries like Palau have minimal natural resources compared to larger developing countries in Eastern Africa. As an alternative to using traditional sources of energy, many developing countries rely on biomass as their source of energy. Countries in Eastern Africa have access to a large amount of biomass, whereas small island nations’ biomass is not available as an alternative to oil and gas. Also, there is pressure on these countries to not use biomass because of the adverse effects on the environment. An alternative for small island nations is to enter the renewable energy market.

Small island nations generally have an abundance of renewable energy sources from rivers, waterfalls, wind, solar, wave power, and geothermal power. Now is the ideal time for small island nations to invest in renewable energy because the costs have dropped dramatically over the years. This allow small island nations to meet their electricity needs, reduce energy costs, create employment opportunities, broaden energy access, and set them on the path to energy self-sufficiency.

Palau is a small island nation in the Pacific who has been making noise in the headlines when it comes to renewable energy. The island nation’s population—a little over 20,000 people—currently rely on diesel fuel from other countries to meet their energy needs. The people of Palau pay twice as much per kilo-watthour ($0.24) than the average American when they only make an average of $5,000 per year. In 2018, the country announced it plans to upgrade their entire electrical grid to rely entirely on renewable energy. Palau has a current project with ENGIE and Gridmarket to build the world’s largest solar power-energy storage microgrid with 100 MW of power generation and distribution capacity without spending a dime of taxpayers’ money. Currently, Palau is on target to meet its 45% goal by 2025 renewable energy goal five years ahead of schedule. The second phase of the project is set to be completed by the end of 2019, allowing Palau to derive 100% of its electrical needs from renewables. This initiative has decreased the cost of energy to the lowest it has ever been in Palau’s history.

Overall, while small island nations have constraints to traditional energy sources and limited access to natural resources, renewable energy may be the perfect solution to meet their energy needs, while also creating a stable economy and development.





Can Vermont’s Moose Population Take the Heat?

A friend of mine was walking along a secluded trail earlier this year when he came across a sad sight – a small, dead moose calf. The alarming part of this image was the moose’s apparent cause of death; the moose was covered in thousands of engorged ticks.

Everyone knows that it is a bad year for ticks, but these particular ticks are thriving and that is due to climate change. Winter ticks are one of a moose population’s greatest threats. They latch on to the moose and start draining the moose of its blood. This can greatly weaken and irritate the moose, and there is no easy way for the moose to rid itself of these pests. Their best bet is to rub against trees and try to scrape them off, but the moose often removes some of its precious insulating fur in the process.

This fur keeps the moose cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Their fur combined with their thick skin has allowed them to adapt to colder environments, not warm ones. If moose are subject to temperatures warmer than they can handle, they start to experience “heat stress.”

To fight off heat stress, a moose will have to cool off quickly. They do this by finding shady areas, finding cool water to soak in, or finding a windy place to lie down. However, if a moose is trying to stay cool, then it can’t spend valuable time foraging. If a moose spends all of its time trying to stay cool instead of foraging for winter, then it won’t have the strength to survive the harsh, cold months.

Not only is winter a concern, but if a cow (mature female moose) is not the proper weight, her offspring will also be undersized and disadvantaged from the start — assuming she can even carry a calf. Sometimes cows are so malnourished that they can’t reproduce, further limiting the moose population.

Moose start to experience “heat stress” at temperatures above 57°F in the summer and above 23°F in the winter. Heat stress also makes moose more vulnerable to winter ticks.

Unfortunately, the average temperature in Vermont during the summer 65°F is and during the winter is 19°F. As you can see, Vermont’s moose population is already outside this range due to the warmth here. With temperatures expected to rise on average by 9-13°F in the next 100 years, who knows if Vermont’s moose population will survive?

Climate change is causing shorter, warmer winters, which negatively impact moose in two significant ways.

First, shorter winters allow for a larger number of winter ticks to reproduce. Vermont is managing the moose and deer population (white tail deer being the primary host), but that management might not matter if winters keep getting easier for the ticks.

Secondly, climate change is affecting trees in the forest. Moose rely on shade from spruce, fir, and hemlock trees to keep cool in the summer and to provide cover in the winter. Climate change causes these species to be replaced by oak and hickory which do not provide the same benefits for the moose. These trees will still provide food and a surface for them to endlessly rub against until they strip themselves of their fur due to the ticks, but it will not provide them with the vital cover that they need.

Overall, the state of Vermont is doing a good job managing some of the symptoms of climate change. By keeping the winter tick population down, they are giving moose a fighting chance at sustaining a viable population in the area. However, it will take a collective effort by us all, not just the State, to tackle the underlying cause of a dying moose population in Vermont; climate change.


Pricing Carbon: The pitfalls of obligation.

Amidst rising temperatures around the globe, the United Nations (UN) warns that the world must reduce carbon dioxide emissions by ~50% by 2030 and reduce them to 0% by 2050 to keep Earth habitable. Furthermore, the Paris Agreement, negotiated at COP21, has an overall goal to limit the increase in global temperature to 1.5°C.

Carbon is one of the key culprits in global warming; it is one of the main components of fossil fuels that is released into the Earth’s atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, which in turn traps heat and contributes to global warming. To mitigate the risk that carbon poses to the earth, a carbon tax has long been thought of as perhaps the most efficient way to charge for carbon. A tax on carbon would essentially charge a price for carbon, with the goal to disincentivize consumers from using so much carbon.

However, to be truly effective, a carbon tax needs to be implemented on a global scale—a challenging feat. The Paris Agreement only peripherally addressed this issue. Article 6.2 allows Parties to use “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” to achieve their mitigation targets, which encourage the linking of carbon pricing approaches. However, the Agreement falls short because of its lack of specificity. The first challenge would be setting the price of carbon per metric ton; currently, there are many discrepancies in the price of carbon across the globe. The UN is currently attempting to come up with a global set price for carbon. The second challenge would be assigning an authority to enforce the tax, including assigning revenues from the tax. The UN could potentially administer a global carbon tax. Finally, a uniform price could mean that developing countries, which theoretically emit less carbon, will be more adversely affected than other, more developed countries.

Professor William Nordhaus, who recently won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work on the economics of climate change, warns that the 1.5°C UN goal is nearly impossible at this point because of the enormous economic costs that such a reduction would require. It is unclear what the price of carbon should be. Norhouse calculates that in order to maintain the 2.5°C ceiling, the price of carbon would have to be near $300 per ton by 2025, and at an even higher price if the ceiling were 1.5°C. This is significantly higher than any other price proposed. He argues that implementing the “wrong” policy (a reduction of 1.5 °C) could actually be more costly than not doing anything at all.

Nordhaus instead proposes “a global climate club” where a majority of countries would join to set the price of carbon (~$30 per ton) and implement this price through taxes or a cap-and-trade system. There would also be a price to pay for not joining the club, which could include tariffs on goods from the country. Again, developing countries who simply cannot afford to join such a carbon club may be at a disadvantage. In any case, Nordhaus acknowledges that even this plan may be too little, too late.

Thus, determining a price for carbon is extremely complicated, because of the incentives involved, as well as the difficulty in assessing what price to put on the damage that carbon is doing (the social and environmental costs). What is more sure, is if we do set the right price for carbon, we have a good shot at achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. What that price is, remains to be seen.


Carbon Brief survey of impacts plays out globally, for 1.5°C v. 2°C

RGGI: An Experiment in Cap-and-Trade

The Kyoto Protocol entered into force in 2005 includes several parts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including a cap-and-trade mechanism aimed at developing a global market for reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs). Several countries, regions, and states have experimented with various cap-and-trade mechanisms since Kyoto. Of note, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), established over ten years ago, is North America’s first mandatory cap-and-trade program for GHGs. The bipartisan program currently involves Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. In 2020, New Jersey is expected to rejoin the program. The program requires electric power generators who produce 25 megawatts or more to purchase allowances for their CO2 emissions. The RGGI participating states sell their CO2 allowances in a regional auction.

The RGGI directly affects the local community of Vermont, as it is one of the states that has committed to the RGGI model. As recognized in the Regional Coordinate to reduce GHGs, the Vermont state legislature recognizes that “climate change poses serious potential risks to human health and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems globally, regionally, and in Vermont.” 30 V.S.A. § 255. Due to the lack of federal action, Vermont, along with several other states, have taken action to reduce carbon emissions for the power sector. Local action is becoming more of a trend as communities around the United States are taking a stand to fight climate change where the federal action is absent.

The Agency of Natural Resources and the Public Utility Commission (PUC) have established a cap-and-trade program that limits and then reduces the total carbon emissions by major electric generating stations. Power generating stations allocate the carbon credits that Vermont receives. The PUC can “receive, hold, bank, and sell tradable carbon credits created under this program.” 30 V.S.A. § 255. Vermont’s auction proceeds are deposited into the electric efficiency fund created under 30 V.S.A. § 209(d)(3). By reinvesting the funds gained from the cap-and-trade mechanism, Vermont has been able to improve efficiency and lower the state’s carbon footprint. From a policy perspective, the RGGI has had a positive impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reinvesting in clean energy as well as increasing energy efficiency.

Across the participating states in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, the RGGI has generated over $3 billion USD from the cap-and-trade system, and most of this money has been reinvested in energy efficiency. One of the critiques of the RGGI is that the mechanism will not be truly successful until it makes meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. Most recently at the 45th RGGI Auction, the CO2 allowances sold for $5.20 per metric ton, which generated $68 million for reinvestments. Most recognize that the $5 price per metric ton of CO2 is far too low. The World Bank cites a necessary minimum price of at least $24-$30 per metric ton of CO2. California already has a price of $15 per metric ton of CO2. A minimum auction price is now being considered for RGGI. A minimum auction price is like a minimum acceptance bid on eBay. When there is low demand, the auction price can be supported by a floor price rather than the carbon selling for below market. If a minimum auction price had been agreed upon during the establishment of the RGGI, the mechanism could have likely generated much more revenue for cleaner energy. Despite its flaws, however, the RGGI is a well-established, transparent, cap-and-trade program that has had a positive impact on Vermont and the Northeastern United States.