Some progress, but still far to go on Maine’s climate goals

Maine’s Climate Council recently agreed the new plan should be “bold, ambitious, equitable, and actionable.”
A view of Camden Harbor from a mountain top.
A Camden Harbor sunset from Mt. Battie around Thanksgiving. Photo by Annie Ropeik.
Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to stay informed of Maine environmental news.

Maine’s landmark plan to combat climate change is due for its first big refresh.

About a year from now, the state is required by law to release the first four-year update to Gov. Janet Mills’ signature climate initiative: the 2020 action plan known as Maine Won’t Wait.

Stakeholder groups, focused on reducing planet-warming emissions from top sources like buildings and transportation while ensuring equity, resilience and more, are already working on the update.

At a kickoff meeting earlier this fall, the state Climate Council came up with some guiding principles for this work. They agreed that the new plan should be “bold, ambitious, equitable, and actionable.”

Last week, we got the final update before the update, as it were: An annual progress report on the original 2020 plan, which sheds light on areas the state might target for getting more aggressive or sharpening its goals in the updated plan next year.

This new progress report for 2023 notes a striking backdrop for the state’s climate action efforts:

“Maine experienced four extreme weather events in the past year that merited Presidential Disaster Declarations,” the report said, citing $15 million in total damages from three separate flooding events in May and June as well as from winter storm Eliot in December 2022.

“This is atypical as Maine averaged one disaster declaration about every two years for much of the previous decade… Damage to transportation and energy infrastructure disrupted emergency response, schools, healthcare, and thousands of Mainers’ daily lives.”

Scientists say these kinds of extremes are becoming increasingly likely due to greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and other sources. These are the kinds of impacts to which the state climate action plan is responding. The plan aims to prevent and mitigate the causes of these impacts — and, to the extent that’s no longer possible, to soften the blow with adaptation and resilience.

This is a shining example of one of my go-to frameworks for making sense of climate change (forgive me if I’ve mentioned it here before) — this triad of causes, impacts and responses.

Longtime Vermont state climatologist Lesley Ann Dupigny-Giroux introduced this concept at a SciLine journalism training I attended in Iowa in 2019. She said at the time that policymakers, media and the public must focus not just on the impacts of climate change — new weather extremes, sea level rise, fires and more — but just as much or more on the other legs of the stool: why these things are happening, and what we’re doing about it.

With all that in mind, I’ve crunched the numbers on the state’s latest progress toward its climate goals (as I did in this newsletter a year ago) to give you a clearer sense of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go.

You can see a couple of new and updated goals released in 2023, which the state has identified as it exceeds or finds itself on track to meet other, related targets. In other areas, progress has been more slow. The state lags in particular on its goals for electric vehicle registrations — a crucial problem, as transportation is by far our large, rural state’s biggest source of emissions.

Climate Council co-chair Hannah Pingree told Maine Public that she expects those EV numbers to improve as charging networks continue to grow and vehicle options and availability increase: “A lot of this, I don’t want to say is out of the state’s control, but the huge changes in the market will make a significant difference in Maine’s ability to meet our goals,” Pingree said.

On the home energy front, much has been made of oil-dependent Maine’s push to switch to efficient, electric heat pumps, and it appears to be having a real impact: “Efficiency Maine reports that heat pumps are now more common than oil heat in new homes,” the progress report says.

The state also says new federal data shows that 56% of Maine homes now use heating oil, inching down from more than 60% in much of the past decade and over 70% in 2010. “The number of homes heating with oil is down over 10% since 2018, and corresponds with a greater than 44% increase in the number of homes heating with electricity during the same period,” the progress report says.

But you can see above that we have progress still to go on getting that technology to lower-income people, who are the most burdened by high and volatile heating costs. Officials hope to focus on these vulnerable households, especially in multi-family buildings, with new funding for climate-friendly home energy upgrades from the Inflation Reduction Act next year.

I reported on these issues recently for Energy News Network: A year after record heating oil price spike, heat pump demand hums along in Maine ; Maine hopes IRA money will get heat pumps to more people, especially in multifamily housing.

The climate plan progress report, overall, is a grab-bag of small-but-interesting legislative tidbits and forthcoming policy reports. Expect detail from the state next year on plans for reaching that target of using 100% renewable energy by 2040; on creating a more robust local food supply in Maine; on priorities for land conservation to shore up that method of carbon storage, and more.

The state’s next greenhouse gas emissions inventory is also due out next year, which will provide a major reality check on Maine’s progress toward its overarching statutory goals of reducing emissions 45% over 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% by 2050. As of the latest inventory in 2022, we were at about 25%.

These are the years, with this steady creep of progress, that will define Maine and the world’s response to the climate crisis — in retrospect, when our children are grown and living on a changed planet, a matter of decades from now.

Our climate targets give us something tangible to shoot for, but every little bit of emissions we cull on our way to those targets will help ease future damage.

As University of Maine climate scientist Ivan Fernandez said earlier this year in our Hooked on Heating Oil series: “Everything we do, every increment we do, counts. … Ultimately, the atmosphere will determine how successful we are.”

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Annie Ropeik

Annie Ropeik is an independent climate journalist in Camden. She previously reported for Spectrum News Maine in Portland and spent about a decade as a local public radio reporter in Alaska, Delaware, Indiana and New Hampshire. Her award-winning energy and environment reporting has appeared in Energy News Network and Inside Climate News and on NPR, the CBC and podcasts such as Outside/In and Living on Earth. A Maryland native and Boston University graduate, Annie serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
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