Kevin Jones lives in Chittenden, Vt., a rural town with a population of just more than 1,000 people.
Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of city life, the law school professor regularly commutes 80 miles, round trip, to get to campus. “The car is, for better or worse, my only means of transportation,” Jones said.
Environmental strike one.
Then there’s Jones’s house. While many in Massachusetts steadfastly refuse to turn on their heat until after Halloween, this show of bravado can be fairly unpleasant up north. Jones heats his 1960s mountain home for much of the year, marginally longer than people in Southern New England, to beat the Vermont chill.
And while those Vermont habits are necessary, they also greatly contribute to the state’s carbon footprint.
A recent report published by Energy Action Network, a Vermont-based nonprofit that conducts energy and climate-related research, found Vermont produces the second-highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the Northeast, narrowly trailing only New Hampshire.
The findings paint a contradiction for a state that prides itself on being environmentally friendly. Vermont produces nearly 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources — largely from hydroelectric power, biomass, wind, and solar. Vermont is also big on composting and recycling and ranks among the national leaders in least waste produced per capita. And many single-use plastics were banned in Vermont three years ago.
But it turns out, a state can be both green and a high emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.
“When we think about the relative responsibility of different states, the per-person responsibility becomes incredibly relevant,” Jared Duval, executive director of Energy Action Network, said. “And that’s what this report shows for Vermont.”
In 2019, the typical Vermonter’s share of carbon pollution was twice as high as the global average and 40 percent higher than someone in Massachusetts, yet still lower than the national average.
The example of Kevin Jones is not an outlier. Nearly 65 percent of Vermont’s population lives in suburban or rural areas where public transportation simply isn’t accessible, leaving most residents stuck in their personal vehicles to commute to work. And so, a large portion of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from, you guessed it, the tailpipe.
One popular solution is incentivizing residents to buy electric vehicles. But skeptics worry that in a state where many residents drive around 100 miles each day, EVs do not have adequate range. That worry, however, is dated — the technology has advanced rapidly in recent years and the average EV sold in the United States now is approaching nearly 300 miles to a charge, quadruple the range EVs offered about a decade ago.
Still, fears linger. Electric charging stations remain sparse in Vermont, with just 390 public charging stations across the state, according to Drive Electric Vermont. When measured as charging ports per capita, that adds up to a lot, actually — Vermont leads the nation. But for locals, that doesn’t mean there is always a fast-charging station when needed.
Jones, who is the director of the Institution for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law and Graduate School, drives a Tesla Model Y and has not found the range of his EV to be an issue. The all-electric vehicle, which he drives for his daily 80-mile commute, has a range that is comparable to a gasoline-powered car.
“I’ve had the Tesla Model Y for four years, and it’s been absolutely fabulous; I have not run into any issues with the range or the performance,” said Jones, who recently drove his Tesla from Vermont to Georgia for the holidays and stopped three times along the way to charge his EV.
Switching from gas-powered vehicles to EVs could massively reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. But Teslas, even with tax credits, don’t come cheap. And whether it’s the high price tag, natural human reluctance to change, or apathy, the vast majority of Vermonters just aren’t as green as Jones. As of 2022, more than 98 percent of the vehicles registered in Vermont were powered by gasoline.
Vermonters also averaged nearly 12,000 miles driven a year, according to 2019 data, more than residents in any other state in the Northeast.
Add it up, and transportation was responsible for 36 percent of the state’s overall carbon emissions. By comparison, in metro areas such as Boston, roughly 30 percent of emissions came from transport, according to the city’s 2019 carbon emissions report.
Benjamin Sovacool, director of the Institute for Global Sustainability at Boston University, said he was not surprised by the Energy Action Network’s findings about the Green Mountain State.
“Having lived in Vermont and studied climate footprints around the world, I can tell you that Vermont is a cold northern rural state,” he said “If you look around the world at Iceland, Denmark, or Scotland, you see the same thing: Higher greenhouse gasses per capita mostly related to heating and transportation.”
Not surprising, greenhouse gas emissions in neighboring New Hampshire were similar to Vermont. Nearby, however, rural Maine produced lower per-capita carbon emissions. Maine lowered its carbon footprint significantly between 2005 and 2019 by sharply reducing its reliance on fossil fuels to power its electricity sector.
Beyond all those personal car miles in Vermont, heating homes and buildings is an even bigger slice of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions pie. Nearly all the fuel used to heat Vermont homes comes from natural gas, propane, wood, and oil, which all produce carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change. Only 3 percent of Vermont’s thermal heat came from electricity, which can be powered by renewable sources like solar or wind.
But change could be on the horizon. Thanks to President Biden’s signature Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law in August 2022, steep rebates are available for installing environmentally friendly heating systems like electric heat pumps. Vermont’s Department of Public Service’s High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Program is also contributing its own incentives for lower-income households.
Altogether, eligible households in Vermont can receive up to $14,000 for installing climate-friendly equipment — including up to $8,000 for heat pumps, $1,750 for heat pump water heaters, and $840 for electric stoves.
There is a similar playbook for rebates to purchase electric vehicles — the state is hoping that between rebates from Washington and Montpelier, many electric vehicles, albeit less fancy models than Teslas, will become simply too attractive to pass up.
Consider the Nissan Leaf, Vermont’s most popular all-electric vehicle. In Vermont, low-income residents who qualify for all the incentives can now pick up a used 2021 Nissan Leaf for around $2,000. By comparison, if they were shopping for a similar used gas-powered compact car, they could expect to pay about 10 times as much, give or take, depending on the model and mileage.
Sovacool, who also taught courses on energy justice and renewable energy at Vermont Law School from 2011 to 2016, suggested various other ways Vermont can tackle its steep thermal sector carbon emissions.
Besides adding energy-efficiency upgrades to lower a homeowner’s heating bill, Sovacool suggested the government should set up programs so Vermonters could pay off efficiency upgrades in installments.
Second, he suggested sealing those leaky homes, and getting Washington to pitch in by creating a federal weatherization assistance program. This, he said, would be a win-win: reducing excess carbon outputs and saving homeowners money on heating.
And, one could argue, also a way to stimulate the economy by putting extra spending money in people’s pockets.
While the new climate report might puncture Vermont’s green self-image, Sovacool said the findings are a good reminder.
“It reminds us that many of the things that go into the state’s carbon footprint are under our control,” he said. “Where we go out to eat, the cars we drive, those are things we can control.”