By Skye Cully
In the last few years the issue of climate change has become one of the most pressing issues of our time. Unfortunately, we’ve seen inaction from legislators in response to millions of people demonstrating on the street. Here in Vermont, that is not the case. With the enactment of the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2020, Vermont pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, and identify opportunities for woodland conservation. These promises were made to lead Vermont to a future of sustainability and respect for our environment. This year’s legislative session aimed to hold Vermont accountable to meet these commitments.
As thresholds for carbon reduction goals grow closer, Vermont legislators have felt more pressure to take a proactive approach to guarantee that these goals are met. In an interview during the legislative session, Representative Heather Surprenant, who represents Windsor County-4 district, called this year’s bills a “responsive reaction” to the Global Warming Solutions Act in their focus on conservation and climate change mitigation.
This session concluded in mid-May with a stimulating debate in the House Chamber to override Governor Scott’s veto on the Affordable Heat Act, which is intended to ease Vermont’s transition to access and use of both affordable and clean energy. Enacting this legislation begins a two-year planning phase. It will then be voted on once more in 2025 in order to implement the plan. The Affordable Heat Act is designed to give every Vermonter the ability to access and afford clean heat. Once the act is implemented, it will follow a “transition pathway” so there can be a gradual transition to renewable and low-carbon heat sources. This bill aims not to put additional costs on households. Instead, it is intended to make fossil fuel providers comply with requirements to make cleaner heating options available to Vermonters.
In addition to the Affordable Heat Act, two more environmental bills were passed during the session: a bill known as the Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act (CRBP), and senate bill S.137, which relates to the 2020 Pilot Act. The CRBP Act addresses conservation, and like the Affordable Heat Act, it creates a comprehensive plan that will be implemented to protect Vermont’s biodiversity in waterways and forested land. Bill S.137 grants a budget to the Public Utility Commission to be dedicated to programs and services that reduce thermal energy greenhouse gas emissions through geothermal energy and fuel efficiency funding. Like the other two bills, this policy aligns with the goals created by the Global Warming Solutions Act as a measure to reduce pollution and meet carbon reduction goals.
While some bills that directly address the issues of clean energy and conservation were passed, several bills directly related to environmental issues did not make it to the governor’s desk. Bill H.435 would have required Vermont to create a roadmap to transform the economy into a more regenerative system by 2026. This would require the economy to cease to be extractive, as the current economic structure does not take into account the issues of climate change and human impact on natural resources. Likewise, H.248 would have created a Vermont Infrastructure Fund to help Vermont plan and implement a budget for climate infrastructure, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and sequester carbon emissions.
Despite these bills failing to be passed in the House and the Senate, they still succeeded in sparking discussion on the value of environmental and climate change bills. These bills were introduced to be able to follow through on the goals set in 2020 and were co-sponsored by Representative Surprenant, who stated in an interview in late April that all of these bills have a “common thread” that ties them together. Surprenant, along with many other house members, values the conservation of Vermont’s natural resources, which is essential to meeting the goals set in the 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act.
Although far from all of the environmental bills introduced this session were passed, a few strong pieces of legislation have been enacted that will start to serve Vermont in meeting our Global Warming Solutions Act goals. The impact of these bills is both symbolic and literal; Vermont leads the way with progressive legislation to combat climate change and promote conservation. After years of national controversy, it is reassuring to see the seeds of change in our legislative body as Vermont spearheads the path to a more sustainable future.
Among the many provisions to address climate change that are incorporated into the Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020 (H.688) is a mandate to “…increase carbon stored on agricultural and forest land and in forest products; and support healthy agricultural soils and local food systems.” Perhaps Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture whose likeness perches atop the Vermont Statehouse, would be pleased. Photo: Library of Congress.
Skye Cully, a junior at Woodstock Union High School, is involved with student government and is a member of the National Honor Society. This past semester she researched Vermont’s history of environmental policy and current legislation.