Burlington City Council passes climate emergency declaration

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) The city of Burlington is taking more steps to address climate change.

At their Sept. 23 meeting, the City Council voted 11-1 in favor of a resolution that declares a climate emergency and adopts net-zero energy goals for Burlington across electric, thermal and transportation sectors.

Jack Hanson, P-Burlington City Council, is one of the authors of the resolution. He says the clock is ticking on climate change and 2030 is the deadline to reach net-zero energy.

"Don’t think about it as we have 11 years left and in 11 years we’ll deal with it. In these 11 years we have to cut emissions at least in half globally in order to avoid some of the most destructive and severe impacts of climate change,” said Hanson. “This is real. This is an emergency. We need to act swiftly.”

The resolution declares the climate emergency is posing a threat to human health, biodiversity and the environment. It calls on Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington, to work with all city departments and give progress reports every six months so that the city can keep tabs on progress toward reaching net-zero energy.

The climate emergency declaration is in response to last year’s published study by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It found that, in order to avoid drought, sea level rising and heat waves, we need to keep warming below 4 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to do that, changes must be made to electric, heat and transportation. In September, the Burlington Electric Department published a Net Zero Energy Roadmap detailing what needs to be done to reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuel use by 2030.

“Most of our buildings are heated by natural gas now. We need to shift toward electric heat including electric heat pumps, electric heat pump water heaters,” said Hanson. “We also need to electrify the bus system, as well. Burlington's Electric Department was able to help fund some of the first electric buses which will be coming shortly."

Climate scientist and author Michael Mann says Burlington’s goals are aggressive, but not unrealistic.

“We as a nation have always risen to the occasion, risen to the challenge. I don’t see any reason to think of climate change any differently. This is the defining challenge of our century,” said Mann.

Hanson agreed that the goals are ambitious but he says they’re necessary.

“The reason we’re even in a situation where we would have to do something that seems aggressive is we collectively deferred this problem for so long, so now we do have to move pretty quickly and it is somewhat drastic, the changes that we need to make on a tight timeframe but that’s because we’ve been putting it off for so long,” Hanson said.

Hanson says he feels optimistic that Burlington can achieve net-zero energy by 2030. He says the semiannual progress reports are critical to making sure Burlington is on track.

"Because I don’t want to just put this out there and then we come back in five years and we’re like, 'Oh, my gosh, we’re so far off track,'" he said. "So this way, we have every six months-- where are we at? Are we on track or not? Do we need to speed up? Are the things that we’re doing working or do we need to adjust?’"

The council is requesting the first progress report on Jan. 6, 2020.

The resolution also states the city of Burlington and the Burlington Electric Department have invested approximately $70 million during the past several decades, and that money has contributed to reductions in electric usage and savings on electric bills of about $12 million a year for its customers.