Governor, Legislature Close on Reaching Groundbreaking Agreement on Climate Change

By Robert Ciesielski and Roger Downs

New York State is on the verge of enacting groundbreaking climate change law. With comprehensive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and 13 US federal agencies warning that there is at most a 12-year window to limit a complete climate catastrophe, it could not come at a more urgent time. Because of the new progressive shift in the Senate, led by Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the legislature is poised to pass the Climate and Community Protection Act, which has passed the Assembly for each of the last three years. The Sierra Club has been privileged to work with the over 160 environmental justice, social justice and labor groups that support the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) and which have helped position the bill for successful passage.

Not to be outdone, Governor Cuomo unveiled his own “green new deal” package at January’s State of the State Address and put his own climate bill, the “Climate Leadership Act,” in his executive budget proposal. In spite of the exciting prospect of enacting strong climate legislation, it was determined that the issue was too complicated to be rushed through an already complicated budget process – leaving the second half of the legislative session to negotiate the details.  What remains to be seen is whether the State Assembly, Senate and the Governor can forge an agreement from their divergent proposals that can lay the groundwork for meaningful climate action.

On the national level, the tragic political blunder of the Trump administration to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, abandon the Clean Power Plan, gut automobile fuel efficiency standards and expand coal, oil and gas extraction should not deter New York or any other state from acting on the goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In fact, in the absence of national leadership, it is imperative for New York to take decisive action and lead the country and the world out of the climate crisis.

While objectively there seems to be collective political will from all of New York’s democratic lawmakers to act on climate change this session, the difference between the Governor’s plan and the Assembly’s plan of action is separated by “knowing what we can accomplish” versus “knowing what we must do.”

Governor Cuomo is acting ambitiously with what his experts and agency heads tell him we can get done to develop renewable energy and complete carbon neutrality in the electric sector, based upon years of incremental progress and negotiation with utilities, developers and labor unions. Committing New York to a 70% renewable energy grid by 2030 and a 100% carbon-neutral grid by 2040 puts New York ahead of every state in the union in the generation sector. But there hasn’t been, to date, a willingness to codify emission-reduction goals for the transportation and building sectors (34% and 32% respectively of NY’s annual GHG emissions) largely because our blueprint for how to get there and at what pace is still uncertain. But, as we have seen time and time again, the political will to plan and act languishes without enforceable goals codified by statute into law.

Leaders in the Assembly have based their sector-wide ( i.e., electric, transportation, heating and cooling, manufacturing) climate change plan upon the dire warnings of climate scientists. They’ve worked from recommended time frames and suggested carbon-emission reductions to inform what NY has to do to help stave off a global catastrophe. Their solution, the CCPA, would put New York State on the path to 100% greenhouse gas reduction across all sectors by 2050. It would set benchmarks and reporting requirements to ensure we are meeting our goals along the way. The bill also promotes healthy communities by ensuring that 40% of all climate mitigation funds are invested in disadvantaged neighborhoods and guarantees good jobs in the renewable energy sector by codifying fair labor practices.

Key to establishing any effective climate policy is proper timing and facilitation of the transition from fossil fuel dependency to a 100% renewable energy future, without harming working people and disadvantaged communities along the way. The pace of  this transition has been strongly debated. In some ways, it is not unlike the dynamics of evacuating people from a burning theater. Moving too fast in a panic has the same dire consequence as does not moving fast enough. While the CCPA institutes a methodical process to avoid “trampling” disadvantaged communities and NY’s workforce through several years of public outreach, data collecting, reporting, planning and rulemaking, there may be more immediate actions that can be codified to make sure progress is made during these initial, essential stages.
Part of the strength of CCPA is the codification of goals, which makes a New York State commitment to decarbonization enforceable. While some of the provisions of CCPA will take years to be fully operational, some of the targets go into effect within months of the bill’s enactment, namely codifying the goal of 50% renewable energy by 2030. It seems reasonable that this goal should be synchronized with the governor’s recently announced 70% clean energy standard by 2030 and a 100% carbon neutral grid by 2040. But both Gov. Cuomo and the legislature need to identify other targets and thresholds in the transportation and building sectors that are consistent with IPCC recommendations. These should be codified early, even as the road map to carbon-free NY under CCPA takes longer to unfold (such as 50% emission reductions from the transportation sector by 2030).
In February, Senator Todd Kaminsky, Chair of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, held hearings on the Climate and Community Protection Act in Albany, NYC, Long Island, Syracuse, and the Hudson Valley as a means for the Senate to gather information to support their position on a potential bill. The expert response and public voice largely echoed support for bold action to combat the looming climate emergency. It appeared that nothing said in the hearings dissuaded senators from the continued push for strong climate legislation. It is also clear that Mr. Kaminsky and his senate colleagues have an increasingly important role in helping broker agreement on the CCPA, where there is more distance between the Assembly and the Governor.
Much of the strength of the governor’s own “green new deal” comes from initiatives he proposes to do unilaterally without needing the agreement of the legislature — like doubling procurement targets for off shore wind (OSW) to 9 Gigawatts (GW) and small sale distributed solar projects under the NYSun program to 6 GW — using the same labor standards enshrined in the CCPA. Coming to agreement on codifying enforceable sector-wide goals for carbon reduction should not be insurmountable. The good news is that the governor and legislative leaders all recognize that the direction of the global economy favors those who embrace the financial benefits of renewable energy and efficiency technologies. They also know that if NY ignores climate science and adheres to fossil fuel dependency, we’ll suffer severe, adverse economic consequences. Ultimately, if we don’t act resolutely together, irreversible carbon-emission cycles will perpetuate out-of-control warming and untold degradation to human society and the ecology around us. Then we all will lose.

With the governor pushing forward with major energy efficiency, storage and renewable energy development programs, and the legislature advancing overarching equity and emission-reduction goals for climate pollution laws — the formula for a nation-leading policy is within our grasp. It is imperative for the Senate, Assembly and Governor to come together in 2019 and pass bold, comprehensive climate legislation.