Earth Day was born as part of a grassroots effort to make the public more aware of issues related to the environment and pollution. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 by over 20 million people across the United States. Over the years, the movement has grown tremendously and is now recognized worldwide.
This year marks a significant move forward in worldwide environmental action with the Earth Day signing of last year’s Paris Climate Agreement. A ceremony will be held at the United Nations for the official signing with more than 130 nations signifying their intent to participate. Leaders of both the United States and China – the world’s top carbon emitters – are both expected to attend.
The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global temperature rise by reducing carbon emissions and moving steadily to clean energy sources. There are no penalties if a country is unsuccessful in their efforts, however, even if they have signed the Agreement. Although studies show that not addressing climate change will ultimately cost more than the conversion to clean energy, it will still be a hard sell to industries that are struggling already. A recent Gallup poll shows that “42 percent of Americans believe that the dangers of climate change are exaggerated and less than half say that protection of the environment should be given priority over energy production.” The Paris Agreement gives the world a foundation upon which to build its environmental policies. But it will take continued efforts of concerned individuals to keep government focused on climate change as a priority.
How is Vermont doing?
That being said, how does Vermont rank based upon its environmental policies? A recent article on the website WalletHub entitled “2015’s Most & Least Eco-Friendly States” written by John S. Kiernan looked at data from multiple government sources such as U.S. Census and EPA, and private groups such as U.S. Green Building Council and United Health Foundation to rank the states in two categories: Environmental Quality and Eco-Friendly Behaviors. Vermont came in number one in Environmental Quality and number two in Eco-Friendly Behaviors. Additionally, the American Lung Association’s annual listing of air quality by city ranked Burlington, Vermont, as number one for both cleanest metropolitan area for Ozone and for 24-hour particle pollution.
Those rankings show how seriously Vermonters take the health of the environment. Perhaps it comes from the rural nature of the state and the historic need to care for the land. Or perhaps, it stems from the fact that to live in Vermont is to be reminded daily of the majesty of nature and the desire to pass that legacy on to the next generation. (That next generation is accepting environmental responsibility in large numbers beginning in high schools such as Burr & Burton Academy of Manchester at their Mountain Campus which explores, among other subjects, “ways people can live sustainably and affect positive change.” The University of Vermont offers a wide range of environmental study programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, was just voted second greenest school in the country by the Princeton Review and “being green” is deeply rooted in all areas of the academic program.) Environmental awareness and environmental initiatives are a part of the DNA of Vermonters.
In 2012, the Vermont legislature unanimously passed a universal Recycling and Composting Act that includes a set of incremental steps so that the entire law is in effect by 2020. The basis of the Act is that much of the waste heading to landfills is actually recoverable as usable resources. This not only includes the usual recyclables like plastic and glass, but also includes food scraps from businesses and residences. By reducing material going to landfills, less CO2 (produced during composting) goes into the atmosphere. Estimates are that by capturing only 50% of the recyclables now going to landfills, 85,000 metric tons of CO2 a year are eliminated – the equivalent of taking 17,708 cars off the road!
Another interesting initiative in Vermont is the production of energy from cow manure. That’s right, cow manure. Here’s how it works. Cow manure is collected and fed into an anaerobic digester (which looks like an in-ground swimming pool with a concrete cover.) The digester is kept at a temperature around 100 degrees for 21 days. Bacteria convert the waste into various products, one of which is methane gas. This biogas is then used to fuel an engine which in turns spins an electric generator to create electricity. (The heat generated in this process is used to keep the digester warm.) This electricity is then fed into Green Mountain Power’s system for distribution to customers. But that’s not all. The material left behind is squeezed until all the liquid can be separated out. This is used as a liquid fertilizer on the farm. The solid material is the consistency of peat moss and is used as bedding for the animals. Nothing goes to waste. So, not only does this process remove the methane emissions from the air, it actually generates clean energy. To read more about this process, check out Blue Spruce Farm, the first to create Cow Power in Vermont.
What you can do.
So, as we head toward Earth Day 2016, you may wish to renew your commitment to the planet. Many local communities dedicate the day to the cleanup of parks and other outdoor recreation areas. If you would like to volunteer, check with your town to find out what opportunities exist. If there is not an event scheduled in your area, wait a couple weeks and you can participate in the statewide Green Up Day on May 7. This day is dedicated to cleaning up litter along the waterways and roadsides throughout the state. Green Up Vermont’s website lists the coordinators for each town and where you can pick up collection bags.
In addition, the environmental lobby is using Earth Day as an opportunity to provide information sessions to inform individuals and companies about what they can do on a state level to support the Paris Climate Agreement.
“Earth Day of Action: The People’s Lobby Day” will be held at the Vermont State House in Montpelier on April 22 from 9:30 to noon. The event is sponsored by Vermont Business for Societal Responsibility. Vermont companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Seventh Generation have already committed to attending. The goal of the event is to feature Vermont business leaders and employees from some of the state’s most socially responsible companies with their message advocating support of bold action to address climate change and the adoption of clean energy. State House lobbyists will present policy briefings. Participants will learn how to advocate for clean energy and be given information on how to become actively involved. The event is free and open to the public. For more information on this event, check the Vermont.com Calendar of Events.
Another event planned for April 22 is “Climate Talk Vermont” hosted by Vermont Law School and the Vermont Chapter of the Sierra Club. The event takes place at 2:30pm, Friday, April 22, in the Chase Community Center on the Vermont Law School campus in South Royalton. Vermont leaders and national environmental advocates will discuss the United Nations conference on climate change and what steps need to be taken in Vermont to attain the goals set forth in the agreement. Expected to attend are national Sierra Club President Aaron Mair and Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin. The event is free to the public. The Vermont.com Calendar of Events can provide more information on this event.