Pandemic lockdown temporarily drove down R.I. carbon emissions

But gains expected to reverse as state inches closer to 2050 net zero deadline

By: - October 23, 2023 5:01 am

More electric vehicles on Rhode Island’s roads can help the state achieve carbon reduction goals. (Canva image)

There’s nothing like a deadly virus to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Fewer gas guzzlers on the road and planes in the sky during the COVID-19 pandemic proved instrumental to helping Rhode Island meet its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions benchmark, according to a new report by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). 

The state’s Act on Climate law, passed in 2021, calls for incrementally decreasing Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next 27 years, with the goal of hitting net zero by 2050, as measured against a baseline emissions amount from 1990. A prior version of the law, called the Resilient Rhode Island Act, required the state to cut emissions by 10% compared with its 1990 baseline by 2020.

The 2020 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory, published Friday, shows Rhode Island surpassed its 2020 goal, with the 9.24 million metric tons of carbon dioxide marking a 20.1% decline over its 1990 baseline.

Driving the rapid decrease: fewer cars and trucks on the road during COVID-19 era restrictions. While transportation remains the largest culprit of greenhouse gas emissions at 38%, total metric tons of carbon dioxide from gas-powered cars and trucks fell 11.6% over the prior year due to pandemic-related lockdowns, according to the report.

It’s too soon to say just how much emissions will jump – the report is expected to come out next fall – but a bounce back is certain, said Joe Poccia, an air quality specialist for DEM.

Poccia didn’t put too much weight in the 2020 data, noting the abnormal circumstances created by the pandemic. Poccia instead looked at the longer trend of annual state emissions data, which, 2020 aside, shows a slow but steady decline in greenhouse gas emissions.

“The state was heading in a good direction anyway,” Poccia said. “It’s hard to say if the pandemic didn’t happen, what emissions would have been, but I expect them to inch downward over the long term, still.”

Especially as new state and federal programs incentivizing solar panels, electric vehicles and heat pumps for homes and businesses gain traction. Poccia pointed to the state’s $25 million heat pump incentive rebate program rolled out last month as instrumental to meeting future emissions mandates.

“Electrifying the heating sector is going to be more challenging to decarbonize than transportation and electricity,” Poccia said. “The heat pump program is the first big step forward toward decarbonizing that sector.”

Residential heating was the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, accounting for 19.8% of total emissions. The 1.91 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from residential heating in 2020 marked an 8.5% decline over the prior year. 

Electricity emissions, the number two contributor to greenhouse gas emissions at 20.6% of 2020 totals, rose 16.7% from the year prior, reflecting increased reliance on Rhode Island gas power plants after the 2019 closure of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts, the report stated. 

The state was heading in a good direction anyway. It’s hard to say if the pandemic didn't happen, what emissions would have been, but I expect them to inch downward over the long term, still.

– Joe Poccia, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management air quality specialist

Patrick Crowley, co-chair of Climate Jobs Rhode Island and a member of an advisory panel of community members tasked with helping the state implement the Act on Climate law, expected to see a more rapid decline in electricity emissions from offshore wind.

Rhode Island Energy published a request for proposals for up to 1,200 megawatts of wind-powered electricity earlier this month, with plans to award a bid next summer. Meanwhile, 400 megawatts of renewable electricity from the already in-progress Revolution Wind project will be connected to Rhode Island’s grid by 2025.

Crowley wasn’t worried that the pandemic-era abnormalities were masking a less-than-stellar report on Rhode Island’s emissions progress.

“If anything, I look at it as the pandemic gave us a head start in meeting our goals,” Crowley said. The cut in transportation emissions gave state leaders time to “get their act together,” in Crowley’s words, on other policies like adopting a 100% renewable energy standard, and ironing out the details of the heat pump incentive program.

It also proved just how effective fewer cars and trucks on the road could be to reaching the state’s emissions mandates, said Emily Koo, senior policy director and Rhode Island program director for the Acadia Center, a nonprofit based in Rockport, Maine. Koo also sits on the appointed panel known as the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Committee (EC4) Advisory Board.

“What I take away from the deep decline in transportation emissions is it’s really a demonstration of the kind of transformational societal change that’s required to reduce transportation emissions,” Koo said.

The big question: how to spur that societal change permanently, and, ideally, without a pandemic. It’s a monumental task that state agencies and environmental experts are still trying to answer.

Concerns about meeting 2030 goal

And the clock is ticking, with the next major milestone – reducing emissions by 45% over 1990 levels – fast-approaching in 2030. And projections included in the EC4’s 2022 update suggests the state is poised to fall short of that 2030 milestone, though the report emphasized that the model is “simple” and “preliminary.”

Further complicating the calculations is the three-year lag between real-time emissions and when the federal data used to compile the state’s annual emissions report actually gets released.

DEM in the report said it “remains committed” to improving the three-year delay, joining with state agencies across the region in urging federal analysts to speed up their own data collection and sharing.

Poccia was optimistic that there was time for improvement over the next 27 years, ahead of the 2050 deadline when state law mandates zero net emissions. Already, state data experts have honed their process, updating the accuracy and specificity with which they calculate emissions from various sources, such as methane leaks.

Koo was less worried about the three-year delay in reporting than the pace at which the state must push new emissions-friendly policies to meet its upcoming benchmarks.

“We had 20 years to cut 10% from our 1990 baseline, and now we have 30 years to do the remaining 90%,” she said. “That kind of imbalance worries me.”


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.