Vermont municipalities are living with the accelerating effects of climate change: rising temperatures, increased heavy precipitation (and, ironically, increased drought), changing biodiversity, an influx of invasive species, and environmental health risks. We know the largest sector of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is transportation, followed by building thermal energy. We also know that local governments – every city, town, and village – along with the state and federal governments will need to act to meet the mounting challenges presented by climate change. This paper – the second of VLCT’s Municipal Action Papers for 2022 – highlights the breadth of pressing issues relating to climate change that affect local governments. VLCT Advocacy staff welcomes any questions you have regarding the issues your communities face, and we thank you for working to help our municipalities better serve us all.
In 2020, the Vermont Legislature and Governor Scott acted to address climate issues and GHG emissions. The legislature passed Act 153, the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). The Climate Action Plan – mandated by Act 153 and adopted and developed by the twenty-three member Vermont Climate Council with administration support the following year – focuses on implementing the law’s mandates to reduce emissions by 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Additionally, the plan calls for increasing resilience in local ecosystems, investing in and protecting communities from climate impact, and capturing carbon. Part of the legislation established that if the state does not meet the GHG emissions goals, it may be sued by individuals who perceive that not enough is being done.
Climate Action in Vermont – Today and Tomorrow
Each of Vermont’s 247 cities and towns plans for hazard mitigation by developing, adopting, and implementing:
- a Local Hazard Mitigation Plan to focus resources on the greatest risks and vulnerabilities and to build partnerships to respond;
- a Local Emergency Management Plan to guide municipal emergency management operations and to qualify for increased state reimbursement through the Emergency Relief and Assistance Fund after federally declared disasters; and
- a Municipal Roads General Permit to assess stormwater vulnerabilities related to transportation networks.
Every eight years, local officials in most municipalities adopt comprehensive municipal plans that include elements addressing forest blocks and habitat, energy, and flood resilience, and which generally seek to reduce vulnerability to climate change. They then turn to revising zoning bylaws to implement the plans, reduce exposure to those risks, and increase resiliency.
As cities, towns, and villages develop vibrant, economically sustainable, welcoming, safe, and affordable communities with high qualities of life for businesses and residents, they will at the same time be asked to do more to plan for and grow climate change resiliency. In most instances, the initiatives that ensconce those attributes in a community are pursued by volunteer selectboards, planning commissions, and development review boards in addition to recreation, energy, and other committees. When professional services are available in our smaller communities, they have been funded by grants.
The Climate Action Plan includes almost 100 references to municipalities and their roles in climate action and GHG reduction. Last June, the Joint Fiscal Office wrote, “relying on voluntary public participation to make the switch to new technologies and investments introduces challenges and uncertainty.” That is something of an understatement. Nevertheless, historically both the state and the federal government have relied heavily on volunteer action to address climate change, and many of those volunteers serve in local government. Clearly, the climate crisis cannot be solved on the backs of volunteers or by Vermont alone.
The Climate Council is working toward measuring the effects of actions and implementing the Climate Action Plan. It must be noted, however, that the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory and Forecast, which relies on federal standardized data, includes data through only 2017. The Rural Resilience and Adaptation Subcommittee of the Climate Council is developing a Municipal Vulnerability Index which, when available next spring, should be a way to organize approaches to the range of issues encompassed by climate change. As well, a smaller group of that committee is working on a Municipal Toolkit that will point local officials to resources to address the findings of the Municipal Vulnerability Index.
Last January, the Department of Public Service adopted the 2022 Comprehensive Energy Plan, which is structured to be consistent with the GWSA and the Climate Action Plan. The Comprehensive Energy Plan re-established three goals in the context of transitioning to a just and equitable energy future:
- In the transportation sector, meet 10 percent of energy needs from renewable energy by 2025 and 45% by 2040;
- In the thermal sector, meet 30 percent of energy needs from renewable energy by 2025 and 70% by 2042; and
- In the electric sector, meet 100 percent of energy needs from carbon-free resources by 2032, with at least 75% from renewable energy.
The following graph demonstrates how the two plans intersect in important ways.
Graph from the Department of Public Service’s 2022 Comprehensive Energy Plan’s Executive Summary
Readers should remember that Vermont was first to establish a statewide energy efficiency utility in 1999. With its focus on energy conservation, Efficiency Vermont has helped Vermonters save $2.8 billion in energy costs and reduced GHG by 12.6 million metric tons since then. And Efficiency Vermont’s partnership with VLCT will help municipalities receive the support they need to reduce their energy costs and save taxpayer dollars in both the more than 2,000 buildings they own and in their vehicles. Last March, VLCT Executive Director Ted Brady said, “Vermonters are demanding that government at every level reduce climate impacts and reduce energy costs. This new partnership will give community leaders the tools necessary to take action at scale right away.”
Last session, the governor vetoed H.715, a bill that would have enacted a “clean heat standard” as called for in the Climate Action Plan. In explaining his veto, Governor Scott wrote, “as Governor and as elected officials, we have an obligation to ensure Vermonters know the financial costs and impacts of this policy on their lives and the State’s economy. Signing this bill would go against this obligation because the costs and impacts are unknown.”
The legislature and governor did, however, agree on and pass other important legislation:
- Act 172, which established a Municipal Energy Resilience Grant Program that will assess municipal buildings and implement energy saving, generation, and weatherization improvements to the limited extent those projects may be funded with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund dollars;
- Act 146, which provides for ecologically significant forest land to be eligible for the Use Value (Current Use) Program and managed for conservation; and
- Act 154, which requires the state to pursue environmental justice for all its residents, not unfairly distribute environmental benefits or burdens, and identify, reduce, and eliminate environmental health disparities.
All things considered, the last three legislative sessions accomplished both a lot – and not enough.
In June, the Joint Fiscal Office wrote that sustainable funding sources to support Climate Action Plan recommendations for long-term mitigation, adaptation, and public engagement and their allocations will have to be identified. That funding must include ongoing support for municipal governments as they implement climate action mitigation projects and mandates.
The Climate Action Office in the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) Secretary’s Office was initially funded in FY21 with an appropriation of $1.45 million in both base and one-time funds. Its charge was to support the Vermont Climate Council and its subcommittees in writing and adopting the Climate Action Plan. Going forward, the Climate Action Office, or its successor, will increasingly focus on implementing the Climate Action Plan. It will also coordinate and provide expertise on state-led climate initiatives as well as the monitoring, assessment, and tracking of climate adaptation, mitigation, and resilience activities necessary to evaluate progress in achieving the requirements of the GWSA. The FY23 base and one-time funding for the office of $1.86 million paid for eight staff positions. In a September 12 memo to the Vermont Climate Council, ANR Secretary Julie Moore recommended a base and one-time budget for FY24 of $1.93 million.
Secretary Moore also noted that the FY23 budget invested more than $200 million of one-time monies – nearly $160 million from ARPA and $40 million from the General Fund – in climate-related initiatives including weatherization, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and purchase incentives, municipal energy resilience, natural and working lands, and flood hazard mitigation.
Members of the Climate Council and its subcommittees may offer additional recommendations for funding to both the administration and the legislature. For instance, the Rural Resilience and Adaptation Subcommittee will likely recommend funding in addition to the administration proposal for $150,000 to support development of the Municipal Vulnerability Index to ensure that municipal and regional commissions have sufficient professional staff to provide technical support to implement provisions of the Climate Action Plan and the Municipal Toolkit at the local level.
Given that Congress had historically been unable to take meaningful action on climate change, those efforts have instead been undertaken by local and state governments. Readers may remember that when the United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement in 2019, more than 4,000 state and local governments, businesses, and non-profits stepped up to make clear that work on reducing greenhouse gases and adapting to climate change would continue.
However, on August 16, President Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which includes significant infusions of federal money – $386 billion of climate and energy spending and tax breaks – to address climate change. That legislation, the first at a national level, will provide a substantial boost to state and local efforts at a time when the need to act on every level is dire.
After President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, National League of Cities (NLC) Executive Director Clarence E. Anthony issued the following statement: “On behalf of all cities, towns and villages, we thank Congress and the Administration for investing in ambitious local climate action by enacting this law. Local leaders are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, and the provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act will support critical investments in renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is an important step forward in our collective fight against climate change, and will help local leaders create more resilient communities in the years to come.”
The IRA includes $2 billion for loans to construct or modify electric transmission facilities, frequently an impediment to deployment of renewable energy. The act also includes $27.6 billion for a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. Administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, the fund will focus on establishing Green Banks, publicly capitalized entities that provide access to low-cost capital and which facilitate private investment into clean energy projects, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, infrastructure resilience, transportation electrification, climate mitigation, and other adaptation activities. We don’t yet know the details of how IRA federal dollars will be deployed. As the Vermont Legislature convenes in its new biennium, we hope more details will be available and Vermont will position itself well to take advantage of those dollars for municipal climate action projects.
There is a breathtaking amount of work to do and best practices to implement if we are to have any kind of measurable effect on reducing greenhouse gases and building a sustainable, resilient future.
To that end, VLCT urges the next legislature to:
- work in partnership with the federal government and state administration to ensure the climate change reduction benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act support Vermont municipalities’ efforts in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions;
- elevate adaptation, resilience, and investment in the Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act and Climate Action Plan to the same priority level as GHG reduction to ensure capacity for climate resilience, planning, and implementation at the municipal level, including the provision of tools, resources, and funding;
- implement policies that empower municipalities to reduce emissions, plan for and increase resiliency to the effects of climate change, and transition to communities powered and sustained by cleaner energy sources;
- reduce the consumption of fossil fuels by 40 percent below GHG emission levels by January 1, 2030, as required by the Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020;
- encourage the use of renewable energy and energy-efficient measures in buildings where appropriate, install them without detracting from a building’s structural or design integrity, and ensure they conform to existing building and electrical codes and standards;
- ensure local input and control over siting and permitting of renewable energy projects;
- prioritize permitting for renewable energy projects whose renewable energy credits remain in Vermont, that are built “close to load” (that is, close to where the energy is being used), and whose GHG reduction costs include externalities;
- provide sources of ongoing funding and technical support to reduce residential carbon footprints, weatherize buildings, and reduce energy cost burdens of low and middle income households; and
- ensure there will be sources of ongoing funding to electrify vehicles and equipment and install charging infrastructure.
- Vermont Climate Council Membership
- Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act
- Vermont Climate Action Plan
- Joint Fiscal Office Brief on Global Warming Solutions Act, June 3, 2022
- Department of Public Service Comprehensive Energy Plan Executive Summary
- Vermont Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory and Forecast, May 2021
- Climate Change in Vermont, Vermont Today, Vermont Climate Council
- Vermont Climate Toolkit, Rural Resilience and Adaptation Subcommittee
- IRA Investments in Climate and Equity, U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee