AUGUSTA — Maine is on target to meet its near-term greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals but is already experiencing serious impacts from human-caused climate change, scientific experts and state officials told the Maine Climate Council on Wednesday at its second full meeting.

Maine lowered its greenhouse gas emissions by 17.5 percent from 1990 to 2017, the latest data available, and is poised to reach the 20 percent reduction established by the Legislature in 2003, according to the Department of Environmental Protection’s new biannual analysis.

“If we can continue to see those reductions in emissions we have seen to 2020 we will make that target,” said the report’s lead author, DEP emissions inventory manager Stacy Knapp, who warned maintaining that downward curve to meet the 45 percent reduction goal 30 years hence wouldn’t be easy. “It will be tough to maintain those going forward to 2050.”

Scientists also provided the first concrete estimates on how much carbon the state’s forests pull from the atmosphere each year, a critical factor in developing plans to meet Gov. Janet Mills’ commitment to make the state carbon neutral by 2045. Net forest growth and durable wooden goods made by the forest products industry are effectively offsetting three-quarters of Maine’s carbon emissions, scientists from the council’s technical advisory committee reported.

“Existing forests growing by a year-by-year basis are offsetting by 60 percent emissions produced by fossil fuels,” said natural resource economist Adam Daigneault of the University of Maine in Orono. “An additional 15 percent of emissions are offset by converting logs into things like this podium, furniture and paper.”

Establishing this number is an essential step in calculating Maine’s overall carbon budget, which allows the Maine Climate Council to come up with detailed plans to reduce our emissions or expand carbon-storing forests so that the state contributes no net greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

With 1.3 million people, Maine is 90 percent forest covered, the highest proportion in the country, which is an enormous asset in becoming carbon neutral. Bhutan, the only country in the world that’s already carbon-negative, is 71 percent forest-covered with 800,000 people.

Daigneault emphasized that future forestry practices would have an enormous effect on Maine’s carbon budget, because the forests’ value as a carbon sink is linked to their net growth over time. Complicating the situation, climate change itself may affect storage as a warmer climate changes the species composition and the range of destructive pests.

“The fact that Maine is so forested will certainly help make the carbon neutrality possible, but no matter what happens with that we still have to reduce our emissions to meet our 2030 and 2050 targets,” Hannah Pingree, director of the governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, told the Press Herald. “The emissions reductions goals are definitely the heavy lifting part of the council’s work.”

Wednesday’s meeting at the Augusta Civic Center was the second full convening of the 39-member Maine Climate Council, which is charged with developing detailed plans to reduce Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and by at least 80 percent by 2050 as required by a law passed last session. It also must develop plans to achieve carbon neutrality, as directed by Mills on Sept. 23 while speaking at the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

The bulk  of the meeting was the presentation of the latest scientific and technical information on how climate change is affecting different aspects of Maine’s economy, society and environment and the best projections going forward. Much of the information had been previously reported in other contexts, such as the rapid warming of the Gulf of Maine, the threat presented to shellfish by the associated acidification of the ocean, the destruction of moose calves overwhelmed by winter ticks, and the importance of improving agricultural soil conservation practices to turn farms from carbon emitters to carbon sinks.

The council’s working groups convened Wednesday afternoon to continue developing plans to monitor the effects of ocean acidification, warming ocean temperatures and changes in the salt and dissolved oxygen content of the Gulf of Maine, an expected side effect of warming.

Maine’s greenhouse gas reductions since 1990 have come despite an initial increase in these emissions between 1990 and 2002, the DEP’s study found, and are primarily due to the introduction of less carbon-intensive fuels such as natural gas and wind power. The estimates were calculated using a model developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help states estimate greenhouse gas emissions. The DEP punched in emissions data related to power plants, agriculture, transportation, industry and other sources, and augmented the model with additional state data. 

Not everyone is convinced the EPA model is a proper representation of Maine’s emissions. State Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, says the methodology for power plants focuses on what is generated in Maine, rather than what is consumed here, meaning emissions from the natural gas burned in our power plants are assigned to the state where the gas was produced.

“The actual CO2 emissions of Maine residents in our electricity sector is considerably higher than what is reflected in this report,” Berry, who co-chairs the Legislature’s energy, utilities and technology committee, told the Press Herald after the meeting.

Another major challenge will be reducing emissions from transportation, which account for 54 percent of the total and which have actually increased by 6 percent since 1990. “Every single state I’ve talked to is having difficulty with the transportation sector,” Knapp told the audience of about 300.

Council members also heard new and more precise estimates of how Maine’s warming climate has affected life here. The annual mean temperature has  increased by 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900.

New calculations by teams led by Ivan Fernandez of the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute found the annual growing season has increased by 16 days since 1950, while the winter snowpack melts 7 to 14 days earlier. Ice-out in Maine lakes occurs about a week earlier than it did in the late 1930s.

“Summers are getting longer, and the winters are shorter,” said Maine State Climatologist Sean Birkel, who said those trends would increase in the coming decades. “That impacts natural systems and it impacts agriculture.”

Birkel told the council the state could expect additional warming of 2 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by century’s end, depending on whether the world follows a low- or high-emission scenario.

The council is co-chaired by Pingree and DEP commissioner Jerry Reid, and its various working committees are meeting monthly through the summer to develop strategies. In the summer and fall of 2020, the council will evaluate and prioritize the recommendations and develop an action plan by December, as required by statute.

Members include nine other department commissioners and the leaders of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maine State Housing Authority and Efficiency Maine Trust; state legislators Lydia Blume, D-York; Richard Campbell, R-Orrington; Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell; and David Woodsome, R-Waterboro, who sponsored the climate bill; and for the tribes, Maulian Dana, ambassador of the Penobscot Nation.

Other councilors include representatives from labor, nonprofits and the agricultural sector. They include energy manager Benedict Cracolici from papermaker Sappi North America; small businessman Daniel Kleban of Freeport’s Maine Beer Co.; McCain Foods’ environmental controller Jeff Saucier, Executive Director Patrice McCarron of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association; and Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council.

 

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