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 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 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.

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.”

To read the full article from the Rhode Island Current, click here.