Reflections on the Latest Draft NY State Climate Plan

By Mark Dunlea, Green Education and Legal Fund

Reading the updated state climate “scoping” plan brings back the anger and grief I felt when the state’s “new” climate law was passed 3 and ½ years ago. All of the shortcomings of the CLCPA are reflected in this scoping document.

The Climate Action Council is scheduled to approve the plan on Monday, December 19.

The “scoping” plan unfortunately is not a plan – nor does the CLCPA actually require one. It lacks clear actions, timetables, and funding. While it contains useful analysis of the climate challenges facing New York, its purpose is more to lay out questions that the Hochul administration (i.e., DEC, PSC, State Energy Master Plan) will now seek to provide more detailed responses to in the next 12 months to 3 or 4 years. New York will continue to avoid making the hard choices while climate change and extreme weather continue to accelerate. The UN has warned that the window to act to avoid climate collapse is rapidly closing, with at best another five to seven years before it is too late – assuming we haven’t already passed that point.

A critical question is whether state lawmakers will finally step up to the plate after 30 years of inaction on climate and energy, rather than leaving it in the hands of the Governor. Lawmakers should speed up the timetable. They need to raise a lot of money quickly. They need to reject the false climate solutions, greenwashing, and corporate welfare that played a major role in the Hochul (Cuomo) administration.

It appears that Hochul wants to leave most of the decision making in her hands. For instance, she seems ready to adopt carbon pricing administratively, bypassing the legislature, much as Governor Pataki did with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Inventory (RGGI).

The Hochul administration believes that the admittedly limited role of the Climate Action Council is largely over once the scoping plan is adopted. Perhaps lawmakers can amend the CLCPA to give the Council a continuing major role. Legislators should also largely remove the agencies from the advisory council, and add on far more climate activists, farmers, workers, and state lawmakers. This would provide a much needed counterpoint to the Governor. Make it a climate watchdog with some real powers.

One of my biggest concerns with the CLCPA was that it largely put into law the state’s existing climate policies as outlined in an Executive Order first issued by Governor Paterson in 2009 and then re-issued by Cuomo. Rather than updating the policies to reflect recent climate developments, including the success by the developing world in Paris in lowering the targeted cap for global warming from 2 degrees C to 1.5 degrees, it focused more on adding important goals related to environmental justice funding, labor standards, and a Just Transition. Unfortunately, such reforms were either discarded or significantly weakened at the last moment before Cuomo agreed to its passage. Putting into law did however get state officials to take the climate goals more seriously, including leading DEC to reject a number of recent permits for fossil fuels.

The draft “scoping” plan continues to reflect outdated climate goals even after the UN has warned that governments are not taking the actions needed to avoid climate catastrophe. For instance, its two main goals remain to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% and to get 70% of its electricity from renewables by 2030. President Biden however has called for a nationwide cut in emissions by 50 to 52% by 2030 with a 100% pollution free electric grid by 2035. It falls far short of declaring a halt to new fossil fuel infrastructure and in setting clear and fast timetables to phase out existing fossil fuel uses.

The draft scoping plan evades laying out a detailed analysis of how much money New York needs to raise for the clean energy transition, and by when, and how will the funds be raised. One report given to the CAC by NYSERDA estimated the cost will by $3 trillion by 2050, though it suggested that the state only needed to raise an “extra” $300 billion since it “assumes” that 90% of the funds will come from redirecting existing energy dollars (much from the private sector). Even that understated number would suggest the need for the state to raise $10 billion annually. Meanwhile, Governor Hochul, following her poor election results (polling far behind the public’s support for raising money through the Environmental Bond Act), says “no new taxes.

The draft plan does now include a call for carbon pricing through “cap-and-invest,” which sounds an awful lot like a cap-and-trade that many (EJ groups, progressive climate activists, Pope Francis) oppose due to manipulation by financial investors and the tendency to continue pollution in disadvantaged communities. Few details however have yet been provided. While putting a “cap” on emissions is a good idea, the CLCPA already does that. A cap-and-tax (or make polluters pay) seems like a far better approach. Cap-and-invest reflects the continuing emphasis by Hochul (Cuomo) to rely on “the markets” to solve climate change even though the markets played a large role in creating the crisis. Rather than having the “market” set the price for carbon through an auction, have state lawmakers set the price.

Hochul plans to build on the state’s existing cap-and-trade program (RGGI) for electrical production. A study down a few years by Congress found that RGGI (which includes half a dozen other northeastern states) had done a poor job in reducing emissions, largely because the “cap” on emissions was too high. Even after the states recently rebooted RGGI, the auction price for carbon is only $12 a ton (up from $3 to 6). DEC estimates that the “social” cost of carbon is more like $121 a ton.

One of the biggest movement in New York in recent years has been the public power movement, to have public ownership and democratic control over the energy system. The law to require the NY Power Authority to build renewable energy passed the Senate last year before stalling in the Assembly, but yet there is no serious attention paid to public power in the plan.

Nor is there little acknowledgement or analysis of why the state has only managed to get 4 to 6% of its electricity from wind and solar despite more than two decades of the state’s having clear goals to expand such energy sources.

The fossil fuel and utility industries do appear to have played less of a role in drafting this plan than the one drafted a decade ago by the prior Climate Action Council. However, the fossil fuel industry has been pushing hard to get Hochul to embrace the “all of the above” energy policy that Democrats such as President Obama have followed even while acknowledging the need for climate action. As the plan got closer to the finish line, more doors were left open to appease the fossil fuel industry, utilities, and corporate interests. The plan provides at least some role for a number of approaches that many climate activists label “false climate solution” – hydrogen, new nuclear plants, biogas, renewable natural gas, carbon capture technology. NY Renews put out a report last year outlining concerns with such approaches. (You can also read a chapter on this on the GELF website.)

There are certainly arguments that can be made in support of many of these approaches. Some make sense short-term (e.g., capturing methane from landfills). But incentivizing short-term solutions creates jobs and businesses dependent on continuing such funding. Such interested parties make campaign donations to see that the subsidies continue. Investing in “false approaches” undercuts better long-term measures (e.g., keeping organic materials out of the waste stream). There are usually better, cheaper, and more timely alternatives to such false solutions, but they lack the political and economic power of the industry lobbyists.

Through my half-century of public interest work, I have repeatedly heard industry sales pitches about the exciting new technological breakthrough (e.g., garbage incineration) that will solve a particular problem at a lower cost and with fewer negative side effects. Invariably such solutions take far longer to put in place, at a much higher cost (and taxpayer subsidy), and it has far more problems than expected. Often there are more cost-effective solutions that already work but the profits are too low to attract big corporate interests.

As with the initial draft plan, the section on buildings is probably the most detailed. Unfortunately, it continues to propose pushing back the target date to move to all electric new homes from 2024 to 2025. And while it addresses the need for significant funding to assist New Yorkers, starting with low- and moderate-income households, to decarbonize their buildings (air and ground heat pumps), it fails to recommend how much funds lawmakers need to raise to accomplish this.

Perhaps the best part of the CLCPA was its elevation of the need to prioritize disadvantaged communities in implementing a climate plan. Unfortunately, much work is needed to realize that goal, though state officials are paying more attention to the issue. While it is a good goal to invest a targeted amount of “new climate” funding to disadvantaged communities, it does not accomplish much if no new funding is provided. Lawmakers should also amend the CLCPA to raise the targeted goal of 35 to 40% going to disadvantaged communities now that the Council has determined that more than half of the state’s population falls into that category.

I helped draft the much stronger “Off Fossil Fuels / 100% Renewables by 2030” act as an alternative to what became the CLCPA. It had nearly 200 organizational endorsers (slightly more than the CCPA) and three dozen legislative co-sponsors. Besides having much faster timelines, including for the adoption of a state plan, it also required county governments and municipalities with more than 50,000 residents to also adopt detailed climate action plans. The scoping plan does recognize that local action is critical to the climate transition. Especially important is for local government to proactively determine where to site renewable energy projects (an issue that As. Didi Barrett just introduced a bill on).

One other major difference between the OFF Act and the CLCPA was that it focused more on what the state needed to do short term – by 2022, 2024, 2026 – rather than the 10- and 30-year timetables that were adopted.

“We have reached a tipping point on the need for climate action. The disruption to our climate and our planet is already worse than we thought, and it is moving faster than predicted”, UN Secretary General António Guterres recently warned. He made it clear that there is no longer time for incremental changes. Lawmakers should treat Hochul’s scoping plan as a worthwhile briefing paper and take the radical steps needed to give New Yorkers and future generations a chance for avoid the worse of climate change.

Green Party says NYS draft Climate Plan locks the planet into climate collapse

“We’re out of time” say the Greens

The Green Party today urged the NYS legislature to return to Albany in January ready to enact a far more ambitious climate plan than is being prepared by the Hochul-dominated Climate Action Council, staffed by many holdovers from the Cuomo administration.

The Greens said that the draft plan, which the Governor has refused to share with the public, has far too many examples of corporate greenwashing. A draft plan was reviewed by the Council members at the State Capitol complex on Monday, with the vote to adopt it set for Dec. 19.

“The plan being proposed by the Climate Action Council does an adequate job of laying out many of the challenges facing NY in enacting a rapid transition to 100% clean renewable energy. We might have applauded much of it – 15 years ago. It is up to the legislature to now make the critical policy decisions and investments. The UN keeps shouting that we can no longer afford incremental changes. They must put the needs of future generations ahead of the donations of the 1%,” remarked Gloria Mattera, State Party co-chair.

The Party says that the state must commit to raising at least $15 billion a year to immediately begin financing the transition to clean renewable energy, such as subsidizing the costs to enable residents to decarbonize their buildings. The Greens expressed alarm over the plan’s support for a so-called “Cap and Invest” which seems very similar to the cap-and-trade program opposed by environmental justice groups and Pope Francis.

“This plan continues Cuomo’s and the Democrat’s mindset of seeking ways to realign the markets to support green capitalism, along with the usual treasure trove for corporate welfare like carbon capture and blue hydrogen. Cap and invest is just a rebranding of cap and trade, which still allows big carbon polluters to keep on polluting by buying emissions permits, polluters who are disproportionately in disadvantaged communities. We need the ecosocialist Green New Deal that the Green Party began campaigning for in 2010 that ensures a Just Transition and living wage jobs, a decent life for all. We need energy democracy through a public energy system. We need system change to stop climate change,” added Howie Hawkins, the Green Party’s most recent candidate for Governor.

The Greens have long advocated for a robust state carbon tax, with the proceeds being divided among a rebate targeted to low-and-middle income people and investment in renewable energy, mass transit, and EJ (environmental justice) initiatives. The Greens said that any carbon price should at least reflect the $125 a ton that the NYS DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) has established as the social cost of carbon, rather than the anemic $12 a ton charged under the state’s existing regional cap-and-trade program (RGGI).

The Council is also seeking a one-year delay in its prior 2024 target to ban gas in new buildings.

“Three and a half years after the state passed a moderate climate law, they are just finishing up a draft plan, which will now go through years of regulatory hearings and likely legal challenges before being implemented. Virtually no new renewable energy has been added since the CLCPA was enacted, and globally in 2022 we will witness the highest greenhouse gas emissions despite still recovering from the COVID economic burnout. When the UN Secretary-General warns that the planet is about to burn due to the slow pace of government action, he means New York State,” said Mark Dunlea, co-chair of the EcoAction Committee of the Green Party of the United States.

“We need New York to recognize that we are in an all-hands-on-deck climate emergency, not business as usual focused on placating campaign donors and the fossil fuel industry” added Dunlea.

The CLCPA’s goals to reduce emissions remain even weaker than those set by President Biden, who has called for a 50 to 52% reduction by 2030.

“Let’s keep it simple. No new fossil fuels and a plan for a rapid phaseout of existing fossil fuel uses. Yes to NYPA building renewable energy but focused on democratic local control of it. And tremendous expansion of municipal public power, which already delivers cheap reliable power to more than fifty local communities. We need to stop the $6 trillion global taxpayer subsidy to fossil fuel companies and instead make the polluters pay, both to finance the transition to renewable energy as well as to lower energy costs for the average New Yorker,” added Peter LaVenia, a Green Party state co-chair.

The Greens oppose various false climate solutions which have varying levels of support from state Democrats, including nuclear, blue hydrogen, “renewable” natural gas, garbage incineration, and various carbon capture technologies. They support much faster timelines (e.g., 2030) to get to zero emissions.

Bold action is required now to avert a climate catastrophe. Incremental change that allows the big polluters to continue to pollute the air we breathe, water we drink and soil where food is grown is not the solution – it is empowerment of them to continue their destruction of our environment.