Op/Ed

Climate Matters: Embracing incremental progress

PAUL RALSTON

19th in a series

Yes, I’m concerned about climate change. Yet I remain optimistic about the future, a future we in Vermont have some control over. We need to understand our limitations and where and how we might act — individually and collectively — to make a meaningful difference. I believe the way forward will require careful compromises — some practical, some political.

Vermont’s contribution to the problem is actually quite small, so as we explore possible actions, we must recognize that Vermonters who are already struggling financially can’t endure some of the climate sacrifices that may be acceptable to the income secure.

During the past session, Vermont’s legislators worked hard on a bold proposal to address the approximately 35% of our greenhouse gas emissions related to heating buildings. The program is called the Clean Heat Standard. Ultimately, Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the legislation saying it lacked a clear indication of costs and impacts, and that it vested too much authority in the Public Utility Commission, a three-member unelected authority.

We should encourage the legislature to continue to work on the Clean Heat Standard. It is complex, and it’s not unusual for new, complex programs to take two sessions to enact. There is room for compromise that will address the governor’s concerns. I encourage the legislature to engage Vermont’s state auditor during the program design so they can accurately track the cost/benefit impact of a final program and make informed adjustments along the way. Reliable data will strengthen our resolve. The program must remain under the control of elected officials, as any new initiative can result in unintended consequences that need to be addressed quickly.

Looking carefully at this program points out a real problem Vermont could address. The success of the Clean Heat Standard depends on an already severely stressed sector of our economy: the trades. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, heating and ventilating technicians, and other tradespeople are in short supply, and their ranks are aging dramatically. This program was designed to get households and businesses to switch to lower carbon fuel sources — a sound and progressive goal. Switching, in most cases, will require skilled tradespeople. To give this program a chance to succeed, we must include aggressive efforts to recruit and train more young people interested in a career in the trades. And, to make that recruitment program work, we need a comprehensive effort to build housing that is affordable to these working folks. We can do something about these problems.

Beyond new programs, we need to review what provisions Vermont has adopted in the past that might be constraining carbon-related innovation, particularly energy efficiency from denser live-and-work communities. We need to look at our land use regulations, local zoning, our permitting regimen, and trades licensing. We have control over these regulations, and we can change them. Innovation is so easily snuffed out by onerous or outdated regulations.

My opinion is we need to embrace incrementalism: that is, change that results in a measurable net decrease in our greenhouse gas emission, even if those results are imperfect.

Two hot button issues represent change that Vermont actually has control over: burning woody biomass and burning methane.

It’s not unusual for climate commentators to make reference to Native Americans and their long-term view of our natural systems. It’s worthwhile to remember that the indigenous people of Vermont burned wood for their heating and cooking. Even in our modern age, Vermont is 78% forested, and sustainably managed forests can provide lumber and woody biomass for heat and electricity while maintaining that resource for the long term and for the natural carbon sink healthy forests provide. New technologies like producing hydrogen and biochar from woody biomass could be transformative. Our house in New Haven came with an oil-fired boiler. We added three electric heat pumps (expensive) energized by Cow Power and a wood stove. I love my wood stove.

My former business, the Vermont Coffee Company, used captured methane from an engineered landfill to fuel our coffee roasters. That methane is chemically identical to natural gas, and it was delivered through the gas pipeline. Yes, burning methane from farms, landfills and sewer plants emits CO2, but the methane naturally released from these sources is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2. Middlebury College’s new project at the Goodrich Farm in Salisbury is anaerobically digesting farm and food waste to generate methane. I recently purchased solids from the Goodrich digesters to mix in my compost, and I love it. Middlebury College is the lead customer for this farm-made methane, and they deserve credit for their commitment to the project. But neither my company’s project nor Middlebury’s could have been possible without the infrastructure of the natural gas pipeline. These are compromises to be sure, but compromises that improve our net greenhouse gas emissions, and compromises I believe are worthwhile.

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Paul Ralston is a lifelong entrepreneur. He founded the Vermont Coffee Company in 1979 and entered “practice retirement” in 2021. He now runs a social venture, Little Village Enterprises, focused on food security and empowerment economics.

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