R.I. Climate Report Looks to Spark Action in 2017

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — It was a bad year for the climate, and 2017 isn’t likely to bring much good cheer for the environment.

By every major measure, global warming got worse in 2016. It will be the hottest year on record and the highest for atmospheric carbon dioxide. Arctic sea ice continued its rapid contraction, and unprecedented droughts and floods proliferated.

Scientists and policymakers are bracing for further decline once President-elect Donald Trump, a climate denier, takes office. Trump’s cabinet likely will be full of fossil-fuel devotees. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), also doubts climate change and is suing the EPA over its Clean Power Plan.

Given the prospect of comprehensive environmental deregulation and the further plundering of natural resources, Rhode Island, like other states in the region, is looking to local initiatives to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of a changing climate.

“With the political situation it makes me feel like seizing our own destiny in what we do locally,” Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) director Janet Coit said. “(It) is the very best and most important thing that we can do.”

Coit made the comment during a Dec. 21 meeting of the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4). The committee of state agency and department heads met to put the finishing touches on its year-end proposal to phase out climate-change emissions.

The final draft of the report recognizes progress on mitigating greenhouse gases, but mostly concludes that Rhode Island must make drastic changes to its energy and transportation sectors to meet long-term emission reductions.

The good news is that Rhode Island has already reached its emission-reduction target for 2020. The challenge is meeting longer-range cuts — 45 percent by 2035 and 80 percent by 2050. Both are far from certain and rely on innovation and undeveloped technology to enact a wholesale transition away from a society that runs on natural gas and oil.

The $300,000 analysis, however, doesn't present a step-by-step plan or propose policies for how the state can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Instead, it encourages exploration of existing initiatives and takes inventory of the sources of heat-trapping gases and projects what they look like going forward.

Forty percent of those emissions — today and in 2050 — come from the transportation sector, which includes cars, trucks, buses, boats, planes, trains and farm equipment. Electricity use by homes and businesses is the next biggest category of emissions, accounting for 20 percent of greenhouse gases. Another 19 percent is from heating hot water and for warmth in homes.

The report also states how these sources of emissions might transform over the next 33 years. The biggest changes call for a dramatic shift from natural gas and diesel power to renewable energy, biofuels and electric vehicles. In order to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050, 76 percent of car and truck travel must come from electric vehicles, according to the report.

Nearly all electricity generation must be fueled by carbon-free sources, including nuclear power. The report's projections also rely on 2,180 megawatts of hydropower from Canada, as well as call for thermal heat pumps to provide 80 percent of residential heating and 60 percent of commercial heating.

The report offers policy ideas, including efforts to preserve and expand forests and wetlands in Rhode Island.

“Our forest resource is being lost and fragmented by a wide variety of outside development pressures. Existing programs like the Forest Legacy Program, the Forest Stewardship Program, and Urban and Community Forestry help reduce those pressures and allow forestland to be preserved and utilized as a carbon sink," according to the report.

The report further suggests that the loss of existing forests can be minimized by adopting a “no-net-loss-of-forests” policy and by supporting new development within the existing urban boundary and within state-approved growth centers, as outlined in the state plan Land Use 2025.

Emissions also can be curtailed by expanding energy-efficiency programs, fixing natural-gas leaks, reducing landfill gas emissions and supporting energy storage technologies, all of which can be helped by economic-stimulus programs.

Recommended policies include further expansion of regional emission-reduction efforts for New England and eastern Canada. This is includes the successful Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an emissions cap-and-trade program, and the forthcoming Regional Climate Action Plan between New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers.

The 11-state Transportation & Climate Initiative looks to reduce emissions by advancing cleaner vehicles and fuels, building sustainable communities, freight efficiency, and using information and communication technologies.

The EC4 intends to promote engagement around these policies and programs in 2017, but how Rhode Island advances the transformation to low-carbon emissions is the question for politicians and environmental groups.

“This document is intended to be used as a high-level reference for policymakers in the (governor’s) administration and the General Assembly, not as a detailed implementation guide or work plan but intentionally defers detailed program and implementation discussion to appropriate working groups, agency initiatives, and stakeholder collaborations,” Coit states in the final draft of the report.

There are a few points of contention with the analysis, such as the use of a consumption-based model instead of an emissions-based model to calculate carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Thus, greenhouse gases from the proposed Burrillville fossil-fuel power plant, which if built, would be the state’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, isn't fully factored into state emissions. Instead, the nearly 1,000-meagwatt natural-gas/diesel facility would be counted as a portion of the regional energy mix, as consumption of that electricity is shared through the entire New England power grid.

The report also leaves out embedded carbon or life-cycle emissions, such as carbon dioxide emissions and methane leaks created during the extraction, transportation and storage of fossil fuels. The transmission of natural gas, Rhode Island’s primary source for electric power generation, releases methane as it moves by pipeline from fracking fields in Pennsylvania to Rhode Island.

The report also leaves out analysis of progressive emission-cutting programs, such as a carbon tax. The concept of a fee on fossil fuels was raised at most of the monthly EC4 meetings. Coit, chairwoman of the EC4, said the report doesn't overlook the carbon tax and other initiatives but instead the idea should be advanced by other state-led committees and independent groups that rely on grassroots activism and outreach such as the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island and Energize Rhode Island.

According to the EC4 report, cities and towns are encouraged to establish their own emission-reduction initiatives such as renewable-energy projects and energy-efficiency incentives, much like Mayor Jorge Elorza’s pledge to make Providence carbon neutral by 2050.

The report encourages inclusiveness and outreach across the population.

“Policymakers should give particular attention to engaging with low-income and vulnerable communities to ensure that all citizens have opportunities to participate in and benefit from the new clean energy economy," according to the report. "In the long-term, by educating and empowering citizens and communities to take energy decisions into their own hands, Rhode Island could help spur a grassroots trend toward meeting the Resilient Rhode Island greenhouse gas targets."

Going forward, it is unclear if funding will exist for future updates on state emission reduction efforts, as most of the report's $300,000 cost was paid with federal dollars. However, the EC4 will still hold monthly meetings. The next meeting is Jan. 11.