Green activists hailed New York as a leader in the fight against climate change in 2019 when lawmakers approved the Climate Act, a landmark bill committing the state to cut its greenhouse emissions by 85% by 2050.
Now comes the hard part.
The state Climate Action Council, a 22-member panel that includes regulators, environmentalists and energy industry representatives, issued a 330-page draft report late last month, laying out a wide-ranging roadmap on what the state should do if it intends to reach its climate action targets, which rank among the most ambitious in the country.
The report envisions nearly all passenger vehicles sold in New York to be electric by 2030. By 2040, all of the state’s power would come from zero-emissions sources. And by 2050, 85% of homes and commercial buildings are expected to be equipped with electrified heat pumps, not fossil-fuel-churning furnaces.
Listen to WNYC's Jon Campbell discuss the state's decade-long plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:
And now, it’s up to the council to sell the plan to New Yorkers and major industries that have, at times, proven wary of change. Much of this year will be dedicated to soliciting feedback from the public – a comment period began January 1st and will last through April – on the best ways to combat climate change before incorporating it into a final report, which is scheduled to be publicly issued by the end of the year.
After that, it will be up to the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and other agencies to put rules in place that will imbue key parts of the plan with the force of law.
“This is going to be the hardest thing that any of us has ever done, creating a plan for transitioning our economy and leaving no one behind,” said Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state DEC and co-chair of the Climate Action Council.
A Years-Long Plan
New York state – and especially New York City – are particularly susceptible to the harms of climate change.
Sea levels have already risen by more than a foot along New York’s coast since 1900, according to the DEC. Between New York City, Westchester and Long Island, well over half of the state’s 20 million residents live in a coastal borough or county, in which some areas are prone to flooding.
Since 1970, the average yearly temperature across New York state has increased by more than 2 degrees.
The Climate Act laid out a multi-step, multi-year process for putting together an emissions-cutting plan and seeing it to fruition.
First came the creation of the Climate Action Council, the main group overseeing the path to the state’s climate goals.
Then came the crafting of the draft plan, a 21-month process that included monthly meetings which, at times, became marathon sessions.
The draft report focuses heavily on six categories that make up the bulk of the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions: transportation, buildings, electricity, industry, agriculture and waste. For each category, the draft report lays out a vision for 2030 and 2050 in ways that illuminate the enormity of the change and the effect it would have on the way New Yorkers carry about their lives.
Under transportation, for example, the report envisions a massive and quick shift away from gas-powered vehicles toward those powered by electricity and, eventually, hydrogen fuel cells.
By 2030, the state anticipates as many as 3 million zero-emissions vehicles on the road in New York – or about 30% of passenger vehicles and 10% of medium-duty vehicles. By 2050, virtually all of the transportation sector will have to be based on zero-emissions vehicles, and a significant increase in the use of public transportation and other ways of cutting down on personal cars.
“Part of our job in the coming year and beyond is to not only educate as to the availability of other types of transportation, but frankly also to ensure that people understand the benefits there are,” said Doreen Harris, the Climate Council co-chair and president of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a regulatory agency. “There are technologies that are being brought to bear that are pretty exciting, actually, and create what I would say is a better quality of life.”
Building NY’s Electric Infrastructure
A massive expansion of electric vehicles, however, will require huge investments in charging infrastructure and significant incentives to encourage people to use mass transit or buy electric cars and retire their gas-powered ones, according to the draft report.
It will also rely on advances in power generation to make it happen. The state’s power grid will have to be bolstered to ensure it can handle a huge increase in charging cars. And it will have to rapidly shift toward renewable energy sources, since it would cancel out some of the climate benefits of electric vehicles if the electricity they use is generated by fossil fuels.
The same goes for the changes the report recommends for the way people heat their homes and businesses heat their buildings.
Buildings were the single largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2019 in New York, accounting for about a third of all emissions statewide, according to the draft report. The report also found that a third of those emissions originated from residential homes and apartments burning fossil fuels.
In New York City, the share is even higher: About 68% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, according to the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability.
How do you change that? In part by installing electrified pumps that take heat out of the ground or air and circulate it through a building without fossil fuels, according to the draft.
The report anticipates up to 2 million homes in New York will have heat pumps by 2030, and that they’ll be the norm in new buildings by then. Under that timetable, an estimated 250,000 homes a year will be built or retrofitted with the pumps – or more than 10 times the current annual amount.
A Significant Change & Cost
But retrofitting a home with a heat pump – which also requires ensuring a home is well insulated and energy efficient – can come at a significant upfront cost.
Donna DeCarolis, a member of the Climate Council and president of the National Fuel Gas Distribution Corporation, raised concern about the costs when the council adopted the draft report in December.
She cited data from a consultant to the council that found it would cost the average home at least $20,000 to purchase a pump, install it and utilize it in their home from an energy-efficiency standpoint. For an apartment building owner in New York City it would cost much more.
DeCarolis voted in favor of approving the draft, but said she was disappointed it did little to take those upfront costs into account.
“I think the plan really needs to include a detailed, credible analysis for cost impacts for all customer sectors across the state, and that should be part of the public discussion in the coming year,” DeCarolis said.
Seggos, the DEC commissioner, said the draft plan is meant to generate a framework and solicit input on how the state can meet its climate goals, not provide a policy-by-policy cost estimate.
It doesn’t include information about how the recommended policies may be enforced or exactly what kind of mandates will be put in place. That will come later in the process, starting next year after the plan has been finalized and the state starts crafting regulations to implement it.
But he said the process of compiling the report has further hammered home one central point: The cost of inaction is far greater than action when it comes to climate change.
“Yes, there are upfront costs with the installation of a heat pump,” he said. “But at what point does it become more efficient to install a heat pump than to continue to run an oil or gas burner over time? We know that there's an inflection point in there where it does save the consumer that money over the lifetime of the technology.”
No Time To Waste
If New York is to meet its climate goals – and there are skeptics who think it may not be possible – it might have to catch up for lost time.
The state’s emissions-cutting benchmarks are based on targets established in 1990. The reduction in emissions from 1990 to 2019 was about 6%, according to the DEC. Getting to 40% by 2030 would require a fast and precipitous decline.
“We're certainly not going to wait for the finalization of that (climate) plan to implement things that make sense for New Yorkers right now,” Harris, of the Climate Council, said. “And I think you'll see that in the coming months.”
To that end, Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has already embraced some of the broad themes in the proposal.
On Wednesday, she joined U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to announce they will accept bids from offshore wind developers to bid on leases for up to 480,000 acres off the coasts of New York and New Jersey.
And in her State of the State address earlier this month, Hochul announced a proposal to ban natural-gas hookups in new buildings by 2027 – a plan that has drawn concern from energy producers and state Republicans.
But some within Hochul’s own party think she isn’t moving fast enough. They argue if the state is to meet its climate targets, it’s going to have to accelerate the timeline for difficult decisions – including the date for Hochul’s ban on gas connections.
New York City, for example, passed a ban on gas hookups that would begin in 2024, three years before Hochul’s proposal.
“Governor Hochul — thank you, but go further,” said Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, a Brooklyn Democrat. “It’s clear that you understand the need to stop fossil fuels in buildings, but we need to move faster.”
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