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R.I. climate emissions declined in 2019, continuing steady — but uneven — trend

Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped between 2018 and 2019, putting the state on the path – but not all the way – toward meeting its climate goals, according to estimates released Tuesday.Nicholas Millard

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped between 2018 and 2019, putting the state on the path — but not all the way — toward meeting its climate goals, according to estimates released Tuesday.

The report, released by the state Department of Environmental Management, shows that Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions continued an uneven downward trajectory from the highs of the 1990s.

“We can’t rest on our laurels,” said Joseph Poccia, the DEM air quality specialist who wrote the report. “It does show a lot of good progress, but there is still so much more work to do.”

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The report estimates greenhouse gas emissions caused by things like driving cars, heating homes, and turning on the lights. The state’s Act on Climate law of 2021, passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Dan McKee, requires the state to reduce its carbon emissions every 10 years from a 1990 benchmark until it reaches net-zero emissions by 2050.

The report, released by the Department of Environmental Management on Tuesday, shows that the state's greenhouse gas emissions continued an uneven downward trajectory from the highs of the 1990s.R.I. Department of Environmental Management

The DEM publishes the data every year in what’s called a greenhouse gas inventory, and every three years, it releases a deeper analysis. Tuesday’s report is one of those deeper dives into 2019, the latest year that has complete data — and the last year before COVID-19 pandemic effects start to show up.

Last week, state environmental officials also released a draft report examining the state’s greenhouse gas reduction plan, which included some of this data. But Tuesday’s report expands on the raw numbers, and provides graphics and charts to drive the points home.

The big-picture numbers:

— In 2019, Rhode Island is estimated to have emitted the equivalent of 10.82 million gross metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, a standard measure known as MMTCO2e. That compares to 11.69 million metric tons in 2018, representing a 7.4 percent decrease year over year and 15 percent lower than 1990.

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The Act on Climate law mandates the state reach 10 percent below the 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020; 45 percent below the 1990 level by 2030; 80 percent below the 1990 level in 2040; and to get to net-zero by 2050. Missing those targets could open the state up to lawsuits.

Here’s where things get a little trickier: The accounting has changed.

To simplify things, this year, Rhode Island started using the way Connecticut accounts for electricity-related emissions, rather than the way Massachusetts does. (To be clear, Rhode Island was transparent about this change, and if you’d like to get into the weeds on this, there’s information online.) Under both estimates, there was still a decrease between 2018 and 2019 in Rhode Island’s electricity emissions.

The new accounting, though, shows a much more optimistic picture than the old one does, and shows less of a decline since 1990 — just 6.9 percent, not 15 percent.

Going forward, using this new way of estimating electricity reductions should get consistent numbers that can be used to track trends. The state also plans to go back and revise the 2016 and 2017 numbers with the new way of doing things.

As in past years, in 2019, transportation was the single-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Rhode Island, at 39.7 percent. That was followed by residential heating, at 19.3 percent, and electricity consumption, at 18.9 percent.R.I. Department of Environmental Management

“With the passage of the Act on Climate, we’re ultimately looking at net emissions total, not the gross emissions for compliance, because of 2050′s net-zero mandate,” Poccia said in a follow-up email.

— Which brings us to another point: net emissions. We’ve talked so far about gross emissions — how much climate-changing greenhouse gas was spewed into the atmosphere? But there’s also the other side of the ledger, because things like forests and land use have an impact on taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. When you take land use and forestry into account, Rhode Island’s net carbon emissions were 10.4 million metric tons in 2019, the estimates said.

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The state hasn’t estimated that net number every year, but the state plans to track it more thoroughly in the future — after all, the goal is to get to net zero by 2050. Using the net numbers, Rhode Island’s carbon emissions are 19.6 percent lower in 2019 than they were in 1990, the DEM said.

— On a final point, there’s good news for Rhode Islanders: The state’s residents emit less carbon per capita, 9.86 metric tons per capita, than the average American (19.86 metric tons per capita). According to the report, Rhode Island is the second-lowest greenhouse gas emitting state per capita in New England, a tick behind Massachusetts.

— As in past years, in 2019, transportation was the single-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Rhode Island, at 39.7 percent. That was followed by residential heating, at 19.3 percent, and electricity consumption, at 18.9 percent. All those sources followed a trend: They decreased from 2018 to 2019, but were up from 2016 to 2019 (at least if you take into account the electricity changes mentioned earlier).

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Meanwhile, the draft report on greenhouse gas reduction efforts that the state released last week also included a model of whether the state would meet its climate reduction targets by 2030 if it took certain steps to combat climate change. It would miss those targets, the models said. The models will continue to be refined, but experts say the data shows more needs to be done on climate change.

“The big point is, we’ve got a long way to go to get to 45 percent emissions reductions in the next seven years,” said Timmons Roberts, a professor at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society who also serves on a science panel for the state government’s climate change council. “And we should be doing even more.”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him @bamaral44.