Members of the state’s Climate Action Council last week voted to move forward with a draft climate scoping plan for how New York in the coming decades will reduce greenhouses gases through every facet of the state’s economy.
The plan, which should be released for public comment by the end of this year, culminates two years and countless hours of discussions and debate about how to reduce carbon emissions from homes, cars, electricity and just about every facet of life through the middle of the 21st century.
Climate Action Council members began working soon after the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act was passed and signed into law. That legislation puts New York in the forefront nationally of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas-causing carbon emissions in order to combat climate change.
The CLPA calls for a 70 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and seeks a carbon-free economy by 2040.
But while the CAC’s 22 members voted to approve the scoping plan unanimously, they aren’t in agreement over details over how to achieve their goals. Moreover, many steps, and potential fights, remain until the policies envisioned in the plan become law.
Once the scoping plan is released, there is a 120-day public comment period. Then, by 2023 the final plan goes to the governor and Legislature, as well as regulatory agencies such as the state Public Service Commission.
That means the scoping plan, which is more than 300 pages, is a broad road map toward carbon reduction. It’s like directions for a long road trip that one gets on Mapquest or Google Maps. When you first enter your trip, a large-scale map shows you the mileage, estimated time and choices of routes. Then you drill down for detailed directions – what exit to take from the highway and what turns to take for your final destination.
“This is not going to happen overnight,” cautioned Raya Salter, a lawyer and environmental advocate who served on the CAC.
To be sure, there will be plenty of debates and disagreements, some of which were evidenced by the various statements that CAC members made after voting to move forward.
“The faster we move to an all-electric future, the faster we will realize the vast economic and health benefits associated with a fossil free future,” Conor Bambrick, director of climate policy at Environmental Advocates NY said in a statement after the vote. The group’s executive director, Peter Iwanowicz, was on the Climate Action Council.
That’s easier said than done, argued fellow CAC member Gavin Donohue, executive director of the Independent Power Producers of New York, which represents the operators of power plants, including those that run on natural gas.
“The draft Plan does not include enough specifics,” Donohue said in his statement following the vote to move forward.
“It is difficult for consumers to understand that compliance with the CLCPA is intended to produce more benefits for them than costs, when they are faced with the costs of installing or accessing renewable energy and energy storage, replacing their heating systems, buying electric cars, and figuring out ways to charge them.”
Even with the hard work ahead, the scoping plan does provide a look at how efforts to cut emissions impact the economy and daily life for millions of New Yorkers. Some of the key features include:
Buildings, which require heating and air conditioning systems, made up 32 percent of carbon emissions in New York in 2019, according to the scoping plan. It talks of a shift from fuels like natural gas, heating oil, kerosene and wood to electricity starting in 2024, with a push for local zoning codes to encourage electrification. The plan calls for large-scale use of heat pumps, which exploit the temperature difference between the inside and outside of a home, to help with electrification. New homes would be built to state-of-the art efficiency and insulation standards.
This sector emits 28 percent of the state’s greenhouse gases and the plan calls for a wholesale shift to electric vehicles. Part of that change has already been legislated – in September Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill phasing out the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035 in favor of emission-free models such as electric vehicles. Emission-free medium and heavy-duty trucks are mandated by 2045.
Decommissioning natural gas
Currently, natural gas is the major source of power for electricity in the state. It fuels a fleet of power plants, some of which have shifted from oil and even coal in past years. Eventually, renewables such as solar and wind power are supposed to take over. This will be an ongoing, complicated process and may be one of the more controversial parts of the scoping plan, especially when considering how fast this should happen.
Donohue, for example, maintains that “dispatchable” or on-demand power sources from gas plants will play a role going forward because solar and wind power are weather-dependent. Gas plants would provide backup on, say, windless, cloudy days when the wind turbines and solar panels aren’t producing much power.
On the other hand, the plan talks about energy storage, in which next-generation large-scale batteries can store electricity for those non-solar or wind days.
The concept that low-income and majority-minority neighborhoods have borne a disproportionate burden from pollution plays a large role in the scoping plan.
Historically, industrial installations like power plants, landfills, truck yards or factories have often been in or near low-income neighborhoods. Albany’s South End, for instance abuts the Port of Albany, train tracks, and a major truck route.
To rectify what council members say is an historical injustice, the plan takes measures to ensure that these neighborhoods and their residents benefit from some of the coming changes. That could be through training programs to work in the green economy, subsidies for installing solar panels or other considerations.
Members of a special Climate Justice Working Group spent a lot of time to determine which communities should qualify and they took a broad approach, considering income, health patterns, the level of pollution and other factors in a given community. “We overlaid the characteristics,” said Amy Klein, CEO of the Troy-based Capital Roots food distribution program, who served on the group.
The plan talks about carbon pricing, or a carbon tax, to help fund the switch to renewables. Under this concept, polluters who emit CO2, be they factories, schools, hospitals or shopping malls, would pay a fee or tax based on the amount of carbon they put in the air each year.
Proceeds from the fee would subsidize renewables and other carbon-reduction activities. Getting this tax or fee passed will no doubt be a difficult job that would have to be done by elected lawmakers who are loathe to be blamed for a new gas tax.
New Yorkers caught a glimpse of that dynamic last year when the push for a carbon tax bill, known as the Climate and Community Investment Act, or CCIA was floated but quickly sank, at least for the time being.
The proposal would have levied $55 per ton of fossil fuel emissions, generating an estimated $2.3 billion annually. But when an early calculation found that would cost motorists an extra 55 cents per gallon, the bill died, even though it also envisioned rebates for low-income commuters.
That was arguably a first pass at a carbon tax, and the idea will likely come up again, although not necessarily in 2022 which is an election year.
When it comes to tough decisions, lawmakers like to wait for reports, studies or special commissions to guide them – and to deflect some of the criticism if it’s an unpopular move.
“If you talk to the state Legislature their excuse was we are waiting for the Climate Council to tell us what to do,” veteran activist and Green Education and Legal Fund chairman Mark Dunlea remarked of last years carbon tax discussion.
“We do need to figure out how we arare going to pay for this,” added Salter.
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