Climate Crisis

R.I.’s Climate Emissions Understated By Up to 45 Percent

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions are grossly understated and the state is struggling to meet its climate-reduction goals, according to a recently published report.

Deeper Decarbonization in the Ocean State, commissioned by Brown University and written by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), estimates that Rhode Island climate emissions are as much as 45 percent higher than previous estimates. The excess emissions are largely revealed through updated data and accounting changes that show a larger impact from natural-gas leaks and power plants.

Rhode Island currently uses an estimate offered by National Grid and the Environmental Protection Agency, suggesting that less than 1 percent of natural gas escapes from pipes and other infrastructure in the state. SEI says that until Rhode Island conducts a field study of gas leaks, it should use a 2.7 percent leakage rate, the number calculated from a field study in Boston, a city with natural-gas infrastructure similar to Providence.

Emissions estimates were also increased by switching the modeling from a consumption-based, meaning emissions taken from power generated in state and out of state, to production-based, which relies on data from in-state power sources.

The SEI report was initiated by Brown University, in part because some of the data for calculating reductions in a 2016 report by the state’s Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) were 20 years old and considered outdated.

“In the twenty years since, climate science has advanced rapidly, and it suggests that impacts are coming faster even than some of the worst predictions,” according to the SEI report.

“So we wanted to know, if we updated some of those numbers with more current science and more realistic estimates about the leakage rates from our old pipes here in New England from natural-gas distribution, what would be the impact,” said Timmons Roberts, professor at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

Roberts explained at the Sept. 12 meeting of the EC4 that the new report was commissioned after Brown University students asked Gov. Gina Raimondo to follow the lead of other states and commit to eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions. Raimondo said she wanted to see evidence that zero-carbon could be achieved. To find out, Brown University president Christina Paxson agreed to fund the SEI study and hire four students as staff.

The 65-page Deeper Decarbonization in the Ocean State also showed that current emissions are understated by shortening the impact of greenhouse gases, such as methane, from 100 years to 20 years.

“We probably only have about 20 years to act if we want to ratchet down greenhouse-gas emissions in a way that is necessary to assure that we avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change,” said Jason Veysey, SEI’s lead scientist on the report.

Rhode Island has non-binding goals of cutting climate emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, 40 percent by 2035, and 80 percent by 2050.

Based on 2016 data, the state is currently 11 percent below 1990 levels. Transportation continues to account for the largest segment, with 36 percent of emissions. Electricity consumption accounts for 26 percent, and residential heating accounts for 17 percent.

A full report from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) on state emissions sources is expected by the end of the year.

“The point of this is to say we need to look seriously at emissions that we are producing now and what their effects are going to be in this next critical period, and that should inform the discussion about what the mitigation agenda should be,” Veysey said.

To get there, the state can use existing technology, such as electric vehicles, electric heat pumps, and a zero-carbon electric grid. Even with such changes, the state would still produce greenhouse-gas emissions from airplanes and boat travel.

“If you want to cut your emissions quickly,” Veysey said, “the very first thing you need to do is you need to stop buying fossil-fuel equipment.”

To achieve lower emissions, as much as 70 percent to 80 percent by 2030, the model assumes that fossil-fuel-powered vehicles would stop being sold in the 2020s. Incentives are needed to encourage early retirement of fossil-fuel vehicles and equipment. Rhode Island must also increase its solar and offshore wind production and import 2.2 gigawatts of hydropower from Quebec, according to the SEI report. Despite its age, the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Connecticut must also continue running.

The report noted that modest consumer changes, such as using low-flow shower heads, are also needed. The report excluded relying on unproven technology such as large-scale carbon capture and storage.

Janet Coit, the EC4 chairwoman and director of DEM, said, “We know a lot more now than when we did with the 2016 report. The science has improved. Our sense of urgency about acting sooner and doing more in the near term will be heightened by your report.”

The EC4’s Science & Technical Advisory Board (STAB), which has new members and a new focus on mitigation, will address some of the ideas from the SEI study. The STAB, of which Roberts is a member, will also look at the impact of powerful greenhouse gases such as refrigerants known as hydrochlorofluorocarbons.

EC4 member James Boyd suggested that the committee take steps to implement recommendations from the SEI report.

“I don’t want to see this end up on the shelf,” said the coastal policy expert for the Coastal Resources Management Council. “We need to take action on this.”

Coit agreed, but noted that some actions are already being done by the state that are similar to those suggested in the report.

The report was praised by environmental groups such as the Acadia Center, the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, and The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island.

“We know this needs to happen,” said Kai Salem of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance. The report is “a call for everyone in this room, the public, people who care about this, to start working together better, sooner, and get our grand game together for the legislation in 2020.”

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