The State of the Climate in NY in 2016 is Hopeful but Bleak
Massive Transition is needed to Clean, Renewable energy while halting use of fossil fuels, including natural gas
While the Governor deserves credit for taking action on climate change, the steps committed to fall far short of what is needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. Climate change continues to happen much faster than scientists had initially predicted. And the state has fallen far short of meeting previous goals such as having 30% of the state’s electricity provided by renewable energy by 2015,
2015 was once again the hottest on record, with Christmas temperatures above 70 degrees in NYC. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now exceeds 400 ppm, far above the safer limit of 350 ppm. Communities and individuals are still struggling to recover from recent hurricanes Sandy and Irene. Across the country and planet, millions of lives have been disrupted by of flooding, drought, storms and heat waves. Scientists say half of the severe storms are due to climate change. Tens of millions worldwide have already been turned into climate change refugees. Tropical diseases are spreading. Food and water supplies are threatened. All of these problems will worsen in the near term as climate change accelerates.
A society-wide mobilization of resources similar to what the US did after Pearl Harbor is needed to avoid the most devastating impacts from climate change. And the window to take such action is rapidly running out. The 100% Renewables Now NY campaign has sent a letter to the Governor outlining its recommendations for action in 2016. More than 85 organizations has endorsed the campaigns call for 100% renewables for NY by 2030 (legislation) – not just for electricity but for all energy uses.
A key missing components of the state’s push for renewable energy has been a robust Power Purchase Agreement for offshore wind (OSW). Activists want a PPA for 5,000 MW by 2025 and 10,000 MW by 2030.
The state’s goals for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions should be put into law (not just regulation or Executive Orders), with clear timelines and benchmarks set through a detailed climate action plan. All state agencies and authorities should be required to ensure that their actions are in compliance with the climate action plan. Local governments should be directed to adopt their own climate action plans as well. Evaluating the climate impact (as well as environmental justice) should be made part of SEQRA.
The state needs to halt public and private investments in fossil fuels, including natural gas.
The state energy plan should be amended to eliminate its push for a major expansion of natural gas. While the Cuomo administration views gas as a cheaper cleaner alternative to burning coal and oil. Methane is eighty-seven times more potent short-term as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The billions of dollars being invested in building gas and oil pipelines, compressor stations, storage facilities and power plants, and in transporting bakkan crude oil in bomb trains, pipelines and barges should instead be immediately invested in the transition to clean, renewable energy. Activists also worry about the damage that will be done to water supplies / wetlands, the environment and communities by the construction of dozens of pipelines and other facilities.
The Governor has positioned New York among the national leaders in responding to climate change. He said no to the fracking of natural gas in New York; set a goal of having 50% of the state’s electricity come from renewables by 2030 (with mandatory utility targets); and vetoed the proposed expansion of the proposed Port Ambrose liquefied natural gas facility. His administration has invested in solar and approved community shared renewables and Community Choice Aggregation. NY has begun to look at the development of off-shore wind with neighboring states. The Reforming Energy Vision is looking at how to rebuild the energy highway to better incorporate decentralized energy sources, while promoting and funding the development of renewable energy (replacing the Renewable Portfolio Standards). NYPA has launched an energy master plan program for the five major upstate cities.
Yet on the same day the Governor said no to fracking, LIPA – which he largely controls – rejected a major offshore wind project. He has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in bailing out failing coal plants and now wants to do the same for upstate nuclear power plants. The state has impeded the implementation of the Green Jobs, Green NY to energy retrofit a million homes. The specific steps and funding his administration has outlined to support the expansion of renewables falls significantly short of achieving the goals he has articulated. The explosion of proposed pipelines and power plants provides the Governor with his Keystone moment – will he reject the needed water permits?
2015 saw strong leadership on climate action from Pope Francis, urging world leaders to move beyond half-measures and platitudes. He spoke to Congress and in NYC, linking solving climate change to solving income inequality and the political and economic marginalization of the planets most vulnerable citizens. At the COP 21 meeting in Paris, world leaders admitted that humans have driven climate change through the burning of fossil fuels and agreed to end doing so. The industrial nations unexpectedly agreed to lower that target for capping global warming from 2 degrees centigrade to 1.5 degrees – which requires them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions twice as quickly. Yet the actual emissions reductions made pledges fell far short of what is needed to avoid devastating climate change. It is up to national, state and local leaders – elected, business, and civic – to take bolder action that what has been agreed to so far.
As the Pope said, the transition away from fossils fuels to renewables must be a just transition. Those most impacted by climate change must have a real voice in guiding the change. Workers who will lose jobs in the transition must have their well-being and future employment guaranteed. Communities that have relied on the fossil fuel industry for their livelihoods must be equitably assisted. Fortunately, the path to 100% clean energy is also the path to full employment. An energy system based on conservation, renewables and sustainability will be healthier and cheaper than one based on fossil fuels.
The Cuomo administration is overly relying upon market forces to drive its climate agenda. It should instead determine the steps needed to reduce greenhouse emissions and then marshal the resources needed for implementation.
The Pope criticized such reliance on the market, including mechanisms such as cap-and-trade that are subject to manipulation. The Governor says he wants to expand the markets for the state’s cap and trade program (RGGI) nationwide. If New York wants the market to help drive its climate change, it should embrace a robust carbon tax which economists view as the most effective carbon pricing mechanism. Legislation for a $35 a ton state carbon tax (with annual increases of $15) has been introduced. Making fossil fuel prices reflect the cost of the damage they impose (e.g., an extra $30 billion in health care costs annually in NY) would make renewables even more cost effective.
Most of the attention in New York State with respect to climate change has focused on electric production, which right now accounts for only a small fraction of the carbon footprint. A solution must address heating and cooling (buildings), transportation, and agriculture. Climate change advocates do believe that energy uses that cannot be reduced or eliminated should be electrified (e.g., electric vehicles).
The state should divest its public pension funds from fossil fuels. At least $5 billion is invested in companies like Exxon. The value of the investment has dropped significantly since 350.org launched the divestment campaign in 2013. Mayor de Blasio recently said that the city should divest from coal immediately and study how to reduce its climate change risk from its investment.