Government scientists told the state's climate council Wednesday that Maine has been reducing its overall emissions of climate-warming pollution over the last several decades. And they say that the carbon-absorbing capacity of Maine's vast forests could ease the road to meeting ambitious goals set by Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature.
But the panel also heard from a group of young activists that those goals are not aggressive enough.
At the governor's urging, the state last year adopted a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next ten years by 45 percent from 1990 levels, and by 80 percent in 2050. But just downstairs from the second meeting of the new Climate Council at the Augusta Civic Center, a group of more than 60 young activists, ranging in age from elementary school to college students, was calling for more.
"We demand that achieving zero emission be the ultimate and official goal for the Maine Climate Council," says Anna Siegel, a 13-year old activist from Yarmouth, and a member of a coalition called Maine Youth for Climate Justice. She says Portland and South Portland are helping to lead the way by declaring a "climate emergency" and the state should follow.
"Those aren't empty words, and that isn't an idealistic dream,” Siegel says. “The first step on this staircase, a staircase leading out of the flames licking our heels, is to declare a climate emergency."
Other speakers called for the Climate Council to consider racial and economic justice when talking action to mitigate the harms of climate change, and to minimize the influence of corporate interests in its decisions.
Hannah Pingree, who co-chairs the council, says it will need to balance numerous interests in producing an action plan by the end of the year, particularly to meet the specific goals of reducing emissions in an economically challenged, rural state that relies on fossil fuels for heat and transportation. But, she adds, members are sensitive to the issues raised by the youth group.
“We've worked hard to make sure we have a transparent process, a diverse process,” she says. “We heard this morning from Anya Wright, our youth council member, we have youth members on each of our working groups and they've been really important participants. And I'd say the next step of the Climate Council's process this spring is going out to the communities and hearing from more stakeholders.”
Earlier, the climate council received a presentation from the state Department of Environmental Protection that found that between 1990 and 2017, the state's carbon emissions dropped by more than 17 percent, making an interim goal of 20 percent by this year seem within reach.
Scientists also presented evidence that the state's forests are offsetting some 60 percent of the emissions produced by fossil fuels in Maine. Pingree says that the Council's most difficult task, rather than reducing emissions, may be to create a plan for mitigating the effects of climate change, such as increased flooding inland and on the coasts.
"It will be an area where we will really need the federal government to wrestle with this because you start talking about that kind of infrastructure, and you're much more significant than even figuring out how to electrify our transportation infrastructure."
But Seth Berry, co-chair of the Legislature's Energy And Utilities Committee, says the state's methodology for calculating its actual emissions levels may be understating the case. For instance, he says, while the state got credit when an old oil-burning electricity plant was retired within its borders, the methodology did not count emissions from an out-of-state natural gas plant that supplied replacement energy to Maine consumers.
"Because it's coming from out of the state, it's treated as zero emissions, which isn't really accurate, for obvious reasons. ... We certainly should be aware of some of the flaws with the electricity sector. I would count it as overly rosy," Berry says.
The Council soon will be getting some help in making its own analyses of Maine's carbon-dioxide emissions and how to improve them: yesterday the state awarded a $400,000 consulting contract to the Eastern Research Group, a Massachusetts company which specializes and in emissions budgeting and climate adaptation planning.
Originally published 6:05 p.m. Jan. 29, 2020