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New York's goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 will be challenging, say the plan's authors

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Earlier this week, a state panel approved an ambitious plan to combat climate change that aims to obtain carbon neutrality by 2050.

Most of the 21 members of the Climate Action Council voted to approve a plan that includes a cap-and-trade program for energy producers, the eventual electrification of home heating systems and cars, and building out the power grid to include more renewable sources like wind and solar.

The state’s environmental commissioner, Basil Seggos, said the plan is a product of collaboration among state government, stakeholders, climate advocates and 35,000 people who made public comments. He believes it is “one of the most consequential actions that the state has ever undertaken.”

“The final scoping plan is big, it’s bold, and it’s visionary,” Seggos said. “It’s the most comprehensive document for any state as it charts a path forward on addressing the climate crisis.”

After 2030, no new natural gas service could be hooked up to existing buildings, and new homes would not be able to have gas services after 2025. Natural gas-powered cooking ranges, water heaters and clothes dryers would no longer be available after 2035.

The sale of gas-powered cars and other vehicles would be banned after 2035, to be replaced with all-electric vehicles. Homeowners who need new furnaces would be encouraged to buy energy-saving heat pumps and smart thermostats.

The plan also addresses the issue of climate justice and tries to reverse the long history of dirty power plants and other polluting industrial sites being built near low-income and predominately Black and brown neighborhoods.

Seggos predicted that 200,000 new jobs could be created in clean energy industries.

“Attracting businesses to New York to take advantage of this new economy,” he said.

Three members of the council voted against the plan, including Gavin Donohue, who leads the Independent Power Producers of New York. It’s a trade group representing three-quarters of the state’s independent energy producers, ranging from hydropower companies to fossil fuel businesses.

Donohue said he agrees with an interim goal to reduce carbon emissions by 70% by 2030, but he said the plan does not provide a realistic path to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

“It’s complete magic, because we don’t address it,” Donohue said.

He said the 2019 law that created the council was supposed to cover that.

“I’m disappointed,” he said.

Donohue predicted that the state’s power grid will become much less reliable. He said the goals require an “unbelievable buildout” in a short period of time.

“I don’t think we’ve done enough to ensure reliability,” Donohue said. “As we transition from our current system to a vastly larger, decarbonized energy system in just a short 18 years from now.”

Republican leaders in the State Legislature, who are the minority party there, also object.

State Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt said in a statement that there are no clear estimates of how much the changes would cost, and he worries it would fall too heavily on New York’s ratepayers and taxpayers.

Ortt said at a time of “skyrocketing heating costs” for New Yorkers, the plan from a “handful of unelected bureaucrats and political appointees” is asking for too much.

Council co-chair Doreen Harris, who heads the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, agreed that it will be challenging to implement. But she said the goals can be reached with minimum disruption, expense and inconvenience.

“I am not blindly optimistic about the ways in which we will achieve these goals,” Harris said. “They are ambitious. No one is hiding from that fact.”

Meanwhile, progressive-leaning groups say the plan does not go far enough to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the costs involved in switching to clean power and leaves too much up to regulators within state government to decide.

Blair Horner, executive director for NYPIRG, said while the plan “lets the oil companies off the hook,” any final climate package must “require the oil industry to foot the bill, not New Yorkers.”

Mark Dunlea with the Green Party of New York said the plan “lacks clear actions, timetables, and funding.”

“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,” Dunlea said in a statement. “Lawmakers should speed up the timetable.”

It will be up to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration, including the agencies led by Seggos and Harris, and the State Legislature, to come up with the specific laws and policies to carry out the plan.

Seggos and Harris say they are confident that they can hit the targets.

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Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.