Saving Rhode Island’s Future: The Economic Importance of Climate Action

New research reveals climate change’s staggering economic toll, likened to perpetual wartime losses. Rhode Island’s current efforts show progress but highlight urgent areas needing improvement.

Rhode Island News: Saving Rhode Island’s Future: The Economic Importance of Climate Action

May 31, 2024, 8:53 am

By Uprise RI Staff

The economic consequences of climate change are proving to be far more catastrophic than earlier estimated. Recent research reveals that the financial toll of rising global temperatures could be likened to the unending costs of a perpetual war. A 1°C increase in global temperature is now projected to slash world GDP by a staggering 12%. With the world already having warmed by more than 1°C since pre-industrial times, the implications are dire. Forecasts predict a 3°C rise by century’s end, threatening to halve global economic output by 2100. This economic devastation, likened to the impact of domestic wartime conditions, underscores the urgency of addressing climate change.

The crux of the issue lies in the short-term economic thinking that is all too common in the US. Critics often decry the immediate economic burden of transitioning to renewable energy and implementing climate policies. However, this viewpoint is shortsighted. The long-term repercussions of unmitigated climate change far exceed the costs of current preventive measures. The new research suggests that by the end of this century, the relentless march of climate change could render people 50% poorer than they would have been in its absence. In fact, the average person’s purchasing power would have already been 37% higher without the warming experienced over the last five decades. The study estimates the social cost of carbon—the economic damage per ton of carbon emissions—at $1,056, vastly surpassing the $190 range set by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The economic burden of climate change is not just a far-off concern; it has already begun shaping our present. Rising temperatures, heavy rainfall, and frequent extreme weather events are expected to cause $38 trillion in destruction annually by mid-century. Both recent studies underline a crucial point: the expenditure required to transition away from fossil fuels is dwarfed by the potential economic losses from climate inaction. Failing to address climate change is akin to choosing a path of greater financial ruin.

In this context, Rhode Island stands as a microcosm of both the challenges and potential solutions in climate policy. The state’s Act on Climate law, passed in 2021, mandates significant emission reductions, and recent data shows a 20% drop in emissions compared to 1990 levels. Yet, this apparent success is tempered by the fact that these reductions were significantly influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on travel and business operations. Without a comprehensive and actionable plan, Rhode Island risks falling short of its climate mandates and could face legal repercussions by 2026.

Rhode Island’s emissions stem from three primary sectors: transportation, electricity consumption, and building heating. While electricity emissions have seen substantial reductions—thanks in part to a shift towards renewable energy and natural gas—the state has lagged in addressing transportation and heating emissions. The 100% Renewable Energy Standard, passed in 2022, aims to offset all electricity sold in the state with renewable sources. The Revolution Wind offshore project, expected to power homes by 2025, exemplifies progress in this sector. Additionally, Rhode Island’s collaboration with Massachusetts and Connecticut to seek new offshore wind projects further reinforces this commitment.

However, transportation emissions remain a significant challenge. The adoption of the Advanced Clean Cars II rule, which mandates electric vehicle sales by 2035, is a step forward. Yet, the state still lacks a comprehensive plan to reduce vehicle miles traveled or adequately fund public transit. Local leaders still need to be prodded and pleaded with to stay on the right path: The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority recently faced a daunting $20 million deficit, which threatened existing services and with it, climate-efficient transportation.

Heating emissions present another formidable obstacle. More than half of Rhode Island homes rely on natural gas, while a significant portion still uses heating oil. The Clean Heat Rhode Island program offers financial incentives for homeowners to electrify heating systems, but broader legislative action is necessary. Proposed policies include a clean heat standard, requiring utilities to gradually increase cleaner heat services, and an energy benchmarking law for large buildings to report and eventually reduce emissions.

The urgency for action is evident. As noted by environmental experts, existing buildings in Rhode Island must be retrofitted and electrified to meet net-zero targets by 2050. The state must also develop a robust strategy to address transportation and heating emissions, or risk economic and environmental consequences.

The battle against climate change is not just an environmental imperative but an economic necessity. Rhode Island’s efforts reflect both the strides made and the hurdles that remain.