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

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