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R.I. environmental initiatives persevere in face of pandemic

Despite challenges of COVID-19, environmental experts find unexpected silver linings

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2020

For the Rhode Island state government, response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been an “all hands on deck” operation since the initial outbreak in spring of 2020, according to Terrence Gray, deputy director for environmental protection at the R.I. Department of Environmental Management.

But this predominant focus on mitigating the pandemic does not mean that state and city governments have pushed environmental and climate-related initiatives to the wayside. There have been delays concerning certain plans and funding streams, but many ambitious goals are still on track, Gray said. But there have also been unexpected silver linings to be found in the midst of such unprecedented times.

Environmental policy progress

Overall, many of R.I.’s environmental and clean energy goals are proceeding as scheduled, despite the impact of the pandemic, State Energy Commissioner at the State of R.I. Office of Energy Resources Nicholas Ucci wrote in an email to The Herald. “OER has not pushed back any deadlines, nor backed off any of our scheduled work/initiatives,” he wrote. “Just the opposite — the COVID crisis serves as a stark reminder of the importance of public and private sector collaboration and commitment to address daunting challenges.”

For instance, in January 2020, Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an Executive Order for R.I. to meet 100 percent of its electricity demand with renewable sources of energy by 2030, The Herald previously reported. The executive order states that OER must provide Raimondo with a “specific and implementable action plan to achieve this goal” by the end of the calendar year.

Ucci wrote that the work to develop this “bold, but achievable goal” of using 100 percent renewables by 2030 is underway and that OER is “on schedule” to deliver their report to Raimondo by the end of the year.

With “comprehensive safety protocols” in place, many of the state’s clean energy initiatives are advancing, according to Ucci. For instance, “Rhode Island largely avoided significant industry shutdowns in construction-related industries,” he wrote, which “has allowed the build out of local solar projects, as an example, to continue throughout the crisis.”

Dawn King, senior lecturer in environment and society at the University, confirmed that the recent push for solar energy has been substantial, with many new solar farms and subsequent jobs being created in the state.

Other projects, such as the state’s commitment to utilizing offshore wind, are also ramping up. The Revolution Wind wind farm installation — proposed and approved in early 2019 — is set to provide the state with 400 megawatts of electrical capacity and the project has begun to advance, Ucci wrote.

Additionally, on Oct. 27, 2020, Raimondo announced plans to procure up to 600 more megawatts of offshore wind in a Request for Proposal. This amount of energy would be enough to power 36 percent of the state’s demand, “the equivalent of powering nearly every home in Rhode Island,” Ucci wrote. According to the Providence Journal, this new procurement is a crucial step toward reaching 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. 

Gray affirmed that many study groups are working diligently on the goals outlined in Raimondo’s January executive order, adding that these other initiatives, such as various studies and stakeholder group discussions, are “setting the stage” for significant reports that he expects will be released by the end of this year.

One such initiative concerns the feasibility of a statewide carbon fee, which would be a “market-based solution to reduce carbon emissions in the state,” Gray said. These studies are still underway, and they constitute an important effort that has not been impacted by the pandemic, he said.

Gray also cited Raimondo’s commitment to improving green transportation options in the state. By moving toward more electric vehicles and green infrastructure and by improving biking and walking trails, the state hopes to “look at green options to improve mobility and transportation for all Rhode Islanders,” Gray said. He added that implementation plans for these goals are proceeding on schedule and he expects them to be completed by the end of December.

Another integral piece behind R.I.’s environmental policy progress is that the R.I. Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council has continued to meet throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Gray said. The EC4 was created in 2014 with the passage of the Resilient Rhode Island Act, The Herald previously reported. Established to set greenhouse gas reduction targets and to consider the impacts of climate change on R.I., the EC4 has continued to hold virtual meetings during the pandemic “without any kind of disruption,” according to Gray.

Additionally, environmental and climate plans remain important in Providence. For instance, Leah Bamberger, director of sustainability for the City of Providence, has confirmed that Providence’s Climate Justice Plan is still a priority. The plan aims to combat climate change in Providence while focusing on communities most affected; this is especially important as low-income communities tend to be more vulnerable to the devastating impacts of climate change.

“COVID has certainly changed a lot, but the foundation of the (Climate Justice) plan will not shift,” Bamberger wrote in an email to The Herald. Many of the policies outlined in the Climate Justice Plan may take years to implement, so the pandemic has not had a profound effect on them, Director of Marketing and Content at the City of Providence Ben Smith added in an email to The Herald.

Unexpected silver linings

As certain climate policy plans have either advanced on schedule or been delayed by COVID-19, there have been a few unexpected “windows of opportunity” during the pandemic to effect positive environmental change, King said.

The pandemic has also highlighted the connection between the environment, public health and racism. “If anything, COVID illuminates the severity of these issues and should help prioritize the implementation of the (Climate Justice) plan,” Bamberger wrote.

Ucci wrote that during this time, he believes that people are “reminded that climate change and carbon pollutants are affecting our people, our communities and our economy today, and will continue to do so in the coming years.”

Additionally, Gray and Elizabeth Stone ’96, who supports programs and policy in the director’s office at RIDEM, have also found a much higher level of public involvement in climate change issues since the onset of the pandemic. Gray said that “attendance is up significantly” in many of RIDEM’s meetings and workshops.

Stone, who provides staff support to the EC4 meetings, also noticed that attendance has increased since EC4 meetings moved online. And without the need to travel to and from such meetings, participants are also, in effect, emitting less carbon into the atmosphere, Stone said.

Participants in these meetings are only a small portion of people who are staying off the road more amid the pandemic — and according to Gray, there is some evidence that during the initial lockdown period there was “an almost immediate improvement in air quality in the communities along the sides of the highway.” While this evidence is preliminary, “it did give a glimpse in terms of what it would be like to limit the emissions from vehicles on our highways, and how that would pretty quickly improve air quality,” Gray said.

These findings again emphasize the link between public health and environmental racism. “COVID’s a respiratory disease, and respiratory impacts from air pollution are pretty critical,” said Gray. “So when you see the overlap of people that are impacted by air pollution, and their vulnerability to COVID, there’s clearly a nexus there.”

King agrees that by holding more events virtually during the pandemic, companies and businesses — and even the University — are starting to see that old habits are both inefficient and bad for the environment. By spending less money on faculty travel to conferences or flying in guest speakers, not only does the University save money, but it also happens to reduce its Scope 3 carbon emissions, of which travel is a significant contributor. “Efficiency usually tends to be more environmentally friendly,” King added.

Overall, despite some setbacks, Ucci emphasized that combating climate change remains a high priority in the state government. “There is no more existential threat to our people and way of life than climate change,” Ucci wrote. “Our team is more committed to our work than ever and we will continue … to ensure our commitments are sustained through 2030 and beyond.”

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