Editorial & Opinion

Rhode Island Needs a Plan to Fully Decarbonize

In the year 2021, climate change is an urgent threat to humanity, and Rhode Island is no exception. We have already warmed faster than any other state in the lower 48, and like the rest of the East Coast are at threat of more severe hurricanes. If we look farther into the future, sea level rise will destroy homes and
Photo for Rhode Island Needs a Plan to Fully Decarbonize

Published on January 27, 2021
By Christian Roseland

In the year 2021, climate change is an urgent threat to humanity, and Rhode Island is no exception. We have already warmed faster than any other state in the lower 48, and like the rest of the East Coast are at threat of more severe hurricanes.

If we look farther into the future, sea level rise will destroy homes and tank coastal real estate prices. A changing climate will affect agriculture and disrupt food supply chains, and can increase the price of food and change what we see on the shelves.

These are the most obvious of the dangers that we face in a warming world. Scientists recognize that no matter how hard they try to predict the future, many threats will emerge that we cannot see today, and things could be worse than predicted due to the complex nature of feedback loops in a changing climate.

Make no mistake, the poor and people of color are already the most affected. And addressing climate change is an urgent need for not only the people that are alive today, but the young who will live on to tomorrow, and the children and grandchildren of everyone on the planet. Yes, even you.

Despite clear warnings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rhode Island is still without a binding and enforceable set of policies to reduce overall emissions in this state and do our part to hold warming to a lesser level.

The IPCC is clear: in order to stay on a path to keep global average temperature rise to only 1.5°C we must reduce CO2 emissions (from power plants, cars, houses, agriculture, and more) by ~45% by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. Even completely halting CO2 emissions by 2050 is not on its own enough. What matters is not where we are by that date, but the total stock of carbon in the atmosphere.

We need to decarbonize—remove CO2 emissions from—our entire economy. But there is a significant upside to this. In addressing this problem we can create abundant, cheap energy, economic opportunity and large numbers of jobs, as well as improving health and quality of life across our state. These benefits are here for the taking, but only if we have a plan, and act on it.

The Work

We have what is needed to start.

First, we know in broad strokes what needs to be done to decarbonize Rhode Island by 2050 or even 2030, thanks to a study by Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab and Stockholm Environmental Institute.

Second, we have a path to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, thanks to a study by the Brattle Group, commissioned by the Raimondo Administration. This is in line with the governor’s executive order to reach that target.

And finally, we have a bill that could become law that will force the state to do what it must to decarbonize our future. The Act on Climate bill would set binding greenhouse gas reduction targets by 2035 and 2050, and was backed by the state’s environmental non-profits when introduced in 2020. This bill is a good start and while the targets and dates are different from IPCC’s, this could get us most of the way to where we need to be.

These pieces are important, but they are just a start. While the Brown/SEI study draws broad outlines of what can be done, it does not propose specific policy measures, let alone legislation. And while Governor Raimondo’s executive order and the Brattle Group study set pathways to 100% renewables in electricity by 2030, electricity is only 25.7% of Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The majority of in-state emissions come from how we transport goods and people, and how we heat our homes and businesses, but unfortunately these are often treated as an afterthought. We need a plan that accounts for all of these sectors, and to act on it. Without continuous, strong policy moves in Rhode Island, we will not have what we need to decarbonize our state and will miss out on the benefits of doing so.

Setting Clear Targets

In order to decarbonize the economy, we need to slash emissions in transportation (35.7% of Rhode Island emissions) and residential and commercial buildings (24.5%). Agriculture, industry and waste also emit CO2, but a smaller amount than electricity, buildings and transportation.

Transportation and buildings will be much harder to decarbonize than electricity because of stock turnover—how long we keep things like houses and cars before we replace them. Most cars in the United States are on the road for an average of 11 years, and buildings typically stay for anywhere from decades to hundreds of years.

It is important to note that Governor Raimondo has plans to join the multi-state Transportation and Climate Initiative. And while this move ostensibly would address this sector, there are a number of factors to consider. First, like the Act on Climate bill, this move still needs legislative approval. But perhaps more centrally, our state agencies—particularly the Rhode Island Department of Transportation—do not have a track record of prioritizing decarbonization. And it is unclear if this will be priority for incoming Governor McKee.

To move forward, we need clear goals and target, and these may need to be set by the legislature. In this regard, the Act on Climate legislation may not be detailed enough. Setting specific targets for the electric power, transportation, and buildings sectors will help policymakers to clearly see what needs to be done and could help avoid delays in key actions.

We know we can fully decarbonize electricity by 2030, so we should set that target. As there is broad consensus among climate and energy experts that electrification will play a key role in decarbonizing the other sectors, reducing emissions in and expanding our electricity supply will be essential.

Backing Targets up with Action

Once we set these targets we need effective policies to reach them. These will have to be ambitious. We waited decades to act on climate change and now a quick and decisive response is needed.

The good news is that reaching these targets doesn’t have to be expensive. Clean energy tech is more efficient and often cheaper over time than the outdated, wasteful, and polluting fossil fuel technologies of the past.

Transportation is the largest chunk, and we should prioritize it to get to where we need to be 2030. To be on a path to 1.5°C compliance we may need to reduce CO2 and other emissions from cars, trucks, buses, trains, and planes by as much as a third or more. This requires strong measures like banning the sales of new gas cars (internal combustion engine or ICE) by 2030. In addition to that, we must also reduce how much people drive (vehicle miles travelled or VMT).

For buildings, recent advances in heat pump technology make it possible to effectively heat homes and businesses in cold climates with efficient electric technologies. There are also the health benefits, such as reducing the toxic indoor air pollution that gas stoves and heaters create. When you look at the health, climate, and other benefits of electric buildings, there is no reason to ever install another gas hookup.

Clean and Cheap Solutions

Neither of these has to come with a big price tag. Electric vehicles (EVs) can already be cheaper to own over their lifetimes than ICE cars when you include maintenance and fuel. And EVs are getting even cheaper. As their costs fall, by 2030, EVs are expected to be cheaper than ICE vehicles straight out of the dealership. As for how far we drive (VMT), this can be addressed in part by repealing bad policies.

One extremely unsexy example is zoning. Zoning determines what can be built where. Many communities, especially poor communities and communities of color, are not within walking or short driving distance of a majority of their day-to-day needs. We can help to address this by repealing restrictive zoning in urban areas, as Oregon has done. We can also make it easier to build mixed-use, medium-density housing by fixing overly onerous permitting. And we can set good policies, like requiring that new street work comply with complete streets principles.

Buildings may be slower to decarbonize. But, we can start by requiring that all new homes, retail businesses and offices be all-electric. All that takes is a code change. We can also beef up the state codes for energy efficiency.

These technical adjustments to what, where, and how things are built and sold, don’t cost the state a dime. And fixing policies to mandate clean technologies will save money for consumers. It’s a clear win-win.

Investing in Our State

We will need to make investments as well, including in solutions like bus rapid transit and energy efficiency retrofits on Rhode Island’s existing building stock. Unlike investing in fossil fuels, these aren’t sunk costs that send money out of state with little local benefit.

These investments will pay off in less traffic, easier commutes, better health, lower energy bills, and better quality of life. But they will also create economic opportunity and jobs.

For example, building more offshore wind will supercharge our ports, as well as providing good jobs in coastal communities. Building solar, wind, and transmission will make being an electrician the hottest career opportunity in Rhode Island for those without a college degree. These and other projects such as building faster bus routes and redesigning streets for bicycles, pedestrians, and other modes of transit mean work for planners, engineers, and laborers.

Building efficiency updates promise to be the biggest job creator of all, as this work is inherently labor-intensive. Best of all, many of these jobs can’t be outsourced. Instead of sending money out of state to import petroleum and fracked gas, we will be keeping energy dollars in the local economy.

The Future to Win

In order to reap these benefits, we need leadership.

We have begun this work with a select group of state lawmakers, but this is an open-source project. We welcome legislators and others to steal these ideas and put your name on them in the form of bills filed with the legislative counsel. No one owns the future and no individual, organization, or coalition owns this task.

For those who are not legislators, we invite you to join a climate organization that can empower you to make change in other effective ways, such as building political power and supporting strong legislation that others write.

One day, finding a job, going to work, and taking home a paycheck will also be a way for more of the people of Rhode Island to fight the climate crisis. The faster we work, the stronger we build, the sooner that day will come.

The time is past for half-measures. We need state senators and state representatives—including those who rose with the latest wave of progressive victories—to work together to come up with a plan and craft and pass a comprehensive package of bills that will decarbonize our economy. We have much to lose if we don’t, and a future to gain if we can put aside old differences and petty concerns to work together.

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