Public Health & Recreation

Post-Pandemic Greenhouse Gas Report Shows Emissions on Rise in R.I. Again

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PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s total carbon emissions are on the rise.

That’s according to the latest greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, whose Air Resources Office is in charge of crunching the emission numbers.

The inventory shows the state emitted a total of 9.82 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2) emissions in 2021, an 8.9% increase over the previous year, when pandemic-era closures clamped down sharply on all human activity.

The upside? Emissions are still below the first goal of the Act on Climate law, which mandates the state reduce its emissions by 10% below 1990 baseline levels by 2020. The downside? The state’s emissions have decreased by 14.4% since 1990, according to DEM’s report, but are still some 35% above the next climate goal, a 45% reduction in 1990 baseline emissions by 2030.

State officials said a rebound in emissions was expected both nationally and locally, as pandemic-era closures and travel restrictions put a serious curb on what residents emitted.

“Rhode Island’s data is still trending in the right direction on a longer timescale,” Gov. Dan McKee said in a statement. “This inventory should serve as a call to action that we must continue to work collaboratively to advance the progress toward the next benchmark mandated by the Act on Climate.”

DEM director Terry Gray emphasized the hundreds of millions of dollars state agencies received via federal funding and grants to pursue climate-related work. “The programs funded by the grants are already aggressively being implemented, and the benefits of those investments will be seen in future inventories,” he said.

Gray also said DEM had begun developing the 2025 Climate Action Plan, which is due next year, and the climate dashboard, a real-time data tool required by the Act on Climate legislation.

The state is racing against the clock to reduce emissions, and show they have a plan to do so. The Act on Climate, signed into law in 2021, mandates state governments reach a series of larger and larger emission reduction benchmarks before hitting net-zero emissions in 2050. If the state fails to meet its goals, it opens itself up to legal challenges for failing to do so.

The 2025 Climate Action Plan is a serious inflection point; if the state plan isn’t up to snuff to tackle emissions over the next 25 years, it will be the first time the state would be able to be sued under the Act on Climate.

Where did the state see the biggest gains following the first year of the pandemic? Transportation, residential heating, and electricity consumption. Aviation emissions increased 241%, a number attributable to the increase in traffic at T.F. Green International Airport. Non-road source emissions, like marine craft, rail, and construction equipment, saw a 10.5% increase over the previous year.

Last year DEM adopted the only major policy that might move the needle on transportation emissions: Advanced Clean Cars II. ACCII is a California emission standard, and in Rhode Island it means that vehicle manufacturers will need to deliver greater and greater numbers of zero-emission vehicles for sale in the state, until all vehicles sold in Rhode Island are EVs by 2035.

Residential heating, now providing a growing share of emissions in the buildings sector, saw its emissions increase by 12.5%. In the inventory, DEM attributes the increase to “New England experiencing a slightly colder and snowier winter compared to 2020.” The department noted homes consumed more heating fuel on a higher number of colder days in January, February, and December.

Environmental advocates have been pushing for energy benchmarking legislation, the Building Decarbonization Act, which would require large buildings to track and eventually reduce the emissions of any building with square footage greater than 25,000 feet. Legislation passed the state Senate this year, but the House chose instead to mandate the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council to study the issue.

Electricity consumption also saw large gains, seeing a 12.5% increase over the previous year. Electricity consumption is expected to smooth out on its own as the state continues to roll out the Renewable Energy Standard, which will be fully enacted by 2033.

DEM has tentatively pledged to publish the next GHG inventory, for 2022, no later than next spring.

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