Skip to contents
Environment

The End of Fossil Fuels in New York?

New York lawmakers have passed the most ambitious climate plan in the country. But how will we get to net-zero emissions by 2050? TBD.

Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Credibility:

The omnibus package of rent reforms wasn’t the only sweeping policy plan New York State lawmakers passed last month—they also agreed on an even bolder, more progressive law: the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).

Dubbed by the New York Times as “one of the world’s most ambitious climate plans,” the CLCPA calls on the state to switch to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040 and to achieve the near-mythical status of net-zero carbon emissions across the economy by 2050. Doing so would end the state’s reliance on fossil fuels and turbocharge the green energy economy. With it, New York joins California, Hawaii, Nevada, Washington, New Mexico, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico in targeting 100 percent clean power.

The law also stipulates that a percentage of New York State investments in clean energy and climate-related reforms go to “disadvantaged communities”—those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and/or most threatened by the transition away from a fossil fuel economy.

The CLCPA sets up New York—the country’s third-largest economy—to be a nationwide leader in the fight against climate change. It’s the most ambitious statewide policy plan in the US, and those hard-and-fast timelines are important to the cause, says climate activist Janelle Peotter of the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition. She told us over at Chronogram, “It’s imperative that we don’t have soft transitions way off in the future. Our species—and countless others on Earth—is dying,” and will continue to do so “if we don’t act quickly and robustly.”

Result of Compromise

Every year since 2016, the Climate and Community Protection Act, a version of what eventually became the CLCPA, has passed the Assembly, pushed by a broad coalition of environmental justice groups, only to die in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Similar to the push to legalize recreational marijuana, the CLCPA was a popular measure that nevertheless seemed like it would fall short in the dying days of this year’s legislative session. As recently as late May, Governor Andrew Cuomo was quoted saying he “does not foresee anything specific for the end of the session” on the climate change front, and he expressed further pessimism in an interview on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC in June. Passing climate change legislation was not on the governor’s list of top 10 priorities released in May.

But a late push by leaders in the Senate and Assembly and by hundreds of environmental activists who traveled to Albany and staged a die-in in front of Cuomo’s office helped push the bill over the line. So, too, did a few compromises, most notably on the provision governing investment in vulnerable communities. City & State reports:

The CCPA’s core components include a deadline for the state to eliminate net carbon emissions by 2050, enabling people to sue the state if emission targets are not met and a guarantee to invest 40% of funds spent on emissions mitigation in disadvantaged communities. When Cuomo said on Wednesday that he and the Legislature may reach a deal on climate change, he did so with an explicit objection—the 40% investment in disadvantaged communities. The governor argued funds should go wherever they are most needed to meet the climate goals.

Indeed, where the CCPA set the bar for investment in disadvantaged communities at 40 percent, the final language of the CLCPA is somewhat more opaque:

State agencies, authorities and entities, in consultation with the environmental justice working group and the climate action council, shall, to the extent practicable, invest or direct available and relevant programmatic resources in a manner designed to achieve a goal for disadvantaged communities to receive forty percent of overall benefits of spending on clean energy and energy efficiency programs, projects or investments in the areas of housing, workforce development, pollution reduction, low income energy assistance, energy, transportation and economic development, provided however, that disadvantaged communities shall receive no less than thirty-five percent of the overall benefits of spending on clean energy and energy efficiency programs, projects or investments and provided further that this section shall not alter funds already contracted or committed as of the effective date of this section.

Translation: Vulnerable communities will receive at least 35 percent of the overall benefits of the state’s investment in renewable energy and climate change programs, but there is no longer a requirement for direct investment. It’s as yet unclear how “disadvantaged communities” will be defined, though the climate justice coalition NY Renews is helping develop criteria.

The fuzziness of the language promises future fights between legislators and activists, some of whom are already concerned. “Frontline communities need more than a vague commitment for benefits,” Annel Hernandez of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance told Vox. “We need direct investments to catalyze our transition to the clean renewable energy economy.”

Hudson Valley Senator Jen Metzger, who co-founded and directed the nonprofit organization Citizens for Local Power, had wanted to include a ban on future fossil fuel infrastructure but was unable to get it in the final bill. And the CCPA originally contained language meant to guarantee the creation of high-quality jobs in the green energy sector, including apprenticeship programs, preference for women- and minority-owned businesses, and fair wage requirements. All of that was cut from the final bill because lawmakers were working on another deal that would have guaranteed higher standards and wages for all jobs in government programs, but that deal fell apart.

Senator Jen Metzger with environmental activists from NY Renews, in Albany. Source: NY Renews

What the Law Will Change

There was no compromise on the bill’s electricity targets, though—those were strengthened. Earlier versions of the bill called for 50 percent renewables by 2030, but the CLCPA boosts that target to 70 percent, with 100 percent renewable electricity by 2040 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. “Net-zero” is key here: the bill requires 85 percent of the reduction in pollution to come from the state slashing its own emissions, but the remaining 15 percent can come from “carbon offsets”—things like forestry or agriculture initiatives that benefit the local environment, or measures that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

It’s also worth singling out the law’s specifications regarding electricity. Research suggests that the single biggest factor in decarbonizing the energy sector is to electrify everything: engines, heat pumps, and vehicles, to name a few. We already have several technologies to produce carbon-free electricity, and we have the infrastructure in the form of power grids to distribute that energy widely. Greening the electricity grid and connecting more energy products to it would have a wide-ranging positive effect on our efforts to reduce emissions.

New York currently produces about 60 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, mostly hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants. To get to the CLCPA’s target of 70 percent by 2030, the state has plans to build huge wind turbines offshore, invest in rooftop solar programs, and install large new batteries to store the clean power.

The targets are in place; how they will be reached is still unclear. Rather than name specific provisions for achieving cuts, the CLCPA leaves that to a 22-member Climate Action Council, which is “charged with preparing reports, proposals and plans as to the specific policies to be put into place to attain the law’s goals.” The Council will be co-chaired by the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation and the president of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and the remaining members will come from heads of various state agencies plus appointees by the governor, Senate, and Assembly. The council will have advisory panels for specific subjects such as transportation, industry, and land use, and will consult with climate justice groups.

What they’ll draw up is anyone’s guess at this point. But if the mandates in the CLCPA are met, it will likely mean the end for oil- and gas-burning boilers and heaters, gasoline-powered cars, and heavy-polluting industry in the state.

There’s also the question of cost. The bill does not include anything like a financial impact statement, and funding commitments and expenditures have yet to be determined. Every two years, the Climate Action Council will issue updated goals for how to meet the targets, which will then determine regulations for industries and residents. It appears that most of the financial burden will be borne by industries; what’s more, the legislation envisions (but does not specify) grants and incentives to help low-income residents.

Opponents claim this could force businesses to leave the state. The New York Times reports:

Business and conservative groups, however, called the plan “a potential shipwreck” and “a green monster.”

Darren Suarez, the senior director of government affairs at the Business Council of New York State, said in a statement, “If our companies are not competitive there is risk of job loss to other jurisdictions with weaker standards, ultimately resulting in higher global greenhouse gas emissions.”

The devil will be in the details, and there are a lot of details to be hammered out—which leaves us with many unanswered questions as to how all of this will unfold. How will these goals be met? What role will government play? What will individual homeowners be required to do? We’ll attempt to answer those questions in a future issue of The River.

New York has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by a mere eight percent from 1990 to 2015. Much work remains to be done. We want to hear your thoughts about New York’s aggressive climate change legislation. Let us know at community@therivernewsroom.com or in the comments below.