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Blair Horner: New York Takes The Lead In Tackling Climate Change Menace

The big state news last week was Governor Cuomo’s approval of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.  The governor signed the legislation with considerable fanfare.  His team organized an event and invited a large crowd of activists, lobbyists, labor groups, businesses and elected officials.

The governor shared the stage with former Vice President Gore, whose movie “An Inconvenient Truth” brought the science of global warming to the general public.

The new law sets ambitious environmental goals for New York State:

  1. The state promises to slash greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors.  Under the bill, greenhouse gas emissions, released by the burning of oil, gas and coal, will be capped in the year 2050 to no more than 15 percent of the total emitted in the year 1990—an 85% reduction in heat-trapping gases. 
  2. The state pledges to boost its reliance on renewable energy.  The law mandates that 70% of the electricity consumed in New York State will come from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2040.  Last year, about 26% of electricity on the state's grid was generated by renewable sources, with most coming from hydroelectric plants.  Only about 5 percent of the state’s energy is generated by solar, wind and geothermal.
  3. The law is vague on how it will achieve these ambitious goals, but empowers a commission to figure it out.  Overseeing the emissions reductions will be a newly established 22-member New York State Climate Action Council, consisting of state agency leaders, business leaders, community and environmental advocates.  The governor will appoint the members of the council. 

However, the law is supposed to create a process to ensure at least 35% of investments from clean energy funds are invested in lower income and communities of color, which have been disproportionately borne environmental harms .  One criticism of the law was that the final agreement was weaker than supporters wanted with regard to environmental justice requirements and spending.
In his speech at the bill signing event, the governor described four principles that guided his approach to the climate crisis.  He said the legislation needed to set ambitious goals, then develop a realistic plan of action, encourage the participation of businesses that will benefit from the movement away from fossil fuel power, and train the necessary workforce to make the plan a reality.

He commented, that his “Green New Deal” is the “Real Deal.”

But what was missing from the governor’s plan was how to measure its performance.  After all, if the goals are great, but the implementation falls behind, it increases the difficulties in achieving those goals.  Saying that the state will not rely on fossil fuels for its electricity by the year 2040 is laudable, but if meaningful annual steps are not taken each year, that goal will be increasingly out-of-reach.  This concern will be brought in to sharp focus if and when the economy slows down and lawmakers feel pressure to shortchange climate efforts.

And failing to achieve laudable goals has happened before.  In his 2009 State of the State address, then-Governor Paterson, called for an aggressive clean energy plan that set a ’45 by 15? goal in which 45% of New York state's electricity needs would be met through improved energy efficiency and a greater use of clean renewable energy by 2015.

Did New York achieve that goal?  Doesn’t look like it. 

Does that mean that the state shouldn’t advance aggressive environmental goals to combat global warming?  Of course not, but an independent and transparent way to monitor progress toward those goals is needed.

The governor should mandate robust annual reporting that includes detailed data on key climate metrics and verifies that the state is moving to reduce its carbon footprint (e.g., changes to its building construction code to maximize energy efficiencies) in order to meet its climate change goals.

Independent monitoring will not only ensure that the state is making progress toward its climate change goals, but also bolster public support for successful programs.  New Yorkers will be asked to participate in a paradigm shift as part of the state’s “Green New Deal.”  We should get annual report cards to see how well we’re doing.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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