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Erika Niedowski: We must drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in key sectors

Wind's turbines stand in the water off Block Island, R.I. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)AP/Associated Press

To read all of the Globe’s op-eds on climate change, click here.

About 1,000 people — mostly students — jammed Providence streets on Sept. 20 as part of the Global Climate Strike. I marched with them, representing Acadia Center, to support their demand that Rhode Island do more to ensure an equitable climate-safe world.

Science says we are behind schedule in addressing the climate crisis and that action must be urgently accelerated to stave off its worst effects. The good news is we know what we need to do. We must drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, including natural gas, in the largest emissions-producing sectors: transportation, buildings, and power generation.

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Transportation accounts for Rhode Island’s largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. Public transit must improve significantly, with expanded express routes and more frequent service, to reduce reliance on private vehicles. Cars, buses and trucks must transition from gasoline and diesel to electricity. Under the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), Rhode Island is part of a coalition of states seeking a regional emissions-reduction solution that could raise millions of dollars for reinvestment in cleaner, more accessible transportation. Our political leadership must seize the opportunity to chart what would be one of the most significant steps forward in U.S. climate policy in years.

Buildings and homes are another main driver of energy use and greenhouse gases. Energy efficiency is about much more than lightbulbs. Rhode Island efficiency programs, which start with free home energy audits, insulate homes and seal air gaps while also providing rebates for efficient appliances and manufacturing equipment. Energy efficiency lowers energy bills and is the most cost-effective way to address climate.

Rhode Island must rapidly curb its dependence on natural gas for heating and power generation. Fossil fuel-based home heating systems and other appliances must be replaced by ones powered by electricity. High-efficiency heat pumps lower health risks from gas leaks and carbon monoxide poisoning and can help avoid volatile winter fuel costs — and outages like the one that disrupted Aquidneck Island last winter. Heat pumps deliver financial benefits, too: Fuel cost savings from switching can be significant depending on which fuel you’re using now.

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Rhode Island must also continue to deploy new clean energy through additional offshore wind turbines and solar arrays on rooftops and underutilized properties. As we increasingly use electricity for heating and transportation, it is critical that such electricity is clean.

The new clean energy economy should not leave anyone behind. Traditionally marginalized communities bear disproportionate burdens of the fossil fuel economy — a wrong we can correct in a clean energy future. With smart, ambitious policymaking, Rhode Island can accelerate the transition from a fossil-fuel dependent economy to a clean energy future. That future requires accelerating a transformation of our energy system that will bring greater economic prosperity and health to all of us, and we should get busy building it.


Erika Niedowski is the former Rhode Island director for Acadia Center. She is now the northeast director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access.