Paul Costello: Climate economy takes steps forward

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In a time when the political climate in Washington lends itself to chaos and uncertainty that undermines environmental and economic efforts, it is more important now than ever that Vermont takes the lead on these issues and strengthens our commitment to our ambitious and necessary energy and emission goals toward a low-carbon economy. While the 2018 legislative session did not bring about the transformative change necessary to fully meet this global challenge, there is much to celebrate and to thank the Governor and Legislators for. Vermonters took critical steps this year to grow our climate economy. We should take pride in progress made, while setting our sights on the work ahead.

The climate economy — that fosters innovation and job creation while finding solutions to climate change — is increasingly the focus of state entrepreneurs, elected leaders and business owners. This was on display at last year's national Catalysts of the Climate Economy Summit that put Vermont on the map as a destination for climate economy innovation and business development. Over 500 energy business leaders, tech entrepreneurs, investors and policy leaders from around the country helped put the focus on Vermont as a national model for success. This economy is advanced by the creative work of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund's Accel-VT Climate Economy Business Accelerator where a first cohort of energy businesses have completed their program and are moving forward to grow their businesses. The next Accel-VT program will begin to take applications early this summer. Meanwhile, VCRD's Climate Economy Model Communities Program has completed its efforts with Pownal, is working door to door to expand efficiencies and generation in Middlebury, is helping Randolph set priorities for action, and is gearing up to begin efforts with Swanton this fall.

This momentum was boosted by the Governor's creation of the Climate Action Commission. The governor championed many of the Commission's early findings in his 2018 State of the State speech, and, Legislative leaders have considered a variety of issues through the climate lens. This has led to several initiatives advancing policies and investments to grow the climate economy.

These include funding dedicated to switching out older wood stoves, which will improve air quality and reduce emissions in one of the state's preferred modes of winter heat. There was also increased focus on weatherization through a program that allows the state treasurer to invest up to $5 million helping to reduce heating costs for Vermont families.

Another bill passed this session will reduce barriers and costs to the deployment of solar on rooftops and other developed properties to ensure that solar development is encouraged in the areas Vermonters most want to see it while helping us transition towards a clean, resilient, and sustainable energy system.

The legislature also focused on electrifying Vermont's transportation system by investing the maximum allowed amount of funds from the VW Environmental Mitigation Trust into electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Other VW settlement funds will be directed towards electric, rather than diesel, vehicles and transit. The legislature also opted to preserve the Clean Energy Development Fund, which will continue to develop environmentally sustainable electric power resources and advance modern wood heating systems.

The legislature authorized a new study of the costs and benefits associated with Vermont adopting and implementing policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by our consumption of fossil fuels. This study will dispassionately evaluate potential carbon pricing and cap and invest models for their potential positive and negative impacts on the Vermont economy and on all of us.

Finally, the legislature wrote into the state budget a priority on advancing Vermont's "climate economy"; this is the first time this term has been used officially in statute — a strong indication of the importance of this growing sector and the value state leaders put into it as an economic and environmental driver.

There is much work still to be done to advance the climate economy and meet our state's energy, emissions, and efficiency goals, but this legislative session will prove to be a springboard for continued innovation and progress. The Vermont Climate Economy Action Team is proud and honored to work alongside our partners in the environmental and business communities as well as elected officials to support the future prosperity and sustainability of communities throughout the state.

Paul Costello is the Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development and manages the Climate Economy Action Team.

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