In a World of Vague Climate Targets, New York Has a Plan—Almost | Environment | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

COP26 was long on targets and short on plans. Congress is on the struggle bus. But when it comes to getting rid of carbon emissions, at least New York is working on it.

The state is moving on with plans for a deep decarbonization of its $2 trillion economy. The 2019 passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), New York’s envelope-pushing climate law, has set large wheels in motion—and they are beginning to turn in earnest. 

By January 1, the state’s 22-member Climate Action Council, created by the CLCPA, must release a draft scoping plan for getting the state’s energy systems and overall economy to net-zero carbon emissions, and an 85 percent reduction in gross emissions, by 2050. When that plan is released, it will be the focus of at least six hearings to gather public input from different regions of the state. 

The plan is important. Legislators will look to it for guidance in passing climate-related bills. State agencies will rely on it for guidance in writing regulations and creating new programs. By the time it is finalized in January of 2023, the plan will wield influence over every aspect of how state government operates in New York.

With the deadline coming up soon, the shape of the CAC’s plan for wringing greenhouse gas emissions out of New York’s economy is beginning to emerge. 

How Does the CAC Work?

Writing a statewide roadmap to a (nearly) zero-carbon future is a massive job. Ultimately, the 22 members of the CAC will be responsible for the plan, but much of the legwork on specifics has been done by expert “advisory panels” to the CAC that have already weighed in on how to tackle decarbonization problems in seven major sectors of New York’s economy: agriculture and forestry, housing, large industry, land use and local government, power generation, transportation, and waste. Also in the mix is the Just Transition Working Group, whose job it is to advise the CAC about workforce development and job creation in the shift to an economy powered by renewable energy.

Weighing in on all of the industry-specific plans on behalf of the vulnerable is the job of the Climate Justice Working Group, whose role it is to be a community-centered reality check on the proceedings, looking out for the interests of those most affected by climate change: low-income and minority communities who currently bear the brunt of flooding, heat waves, air pollution, and chronic underinvestment in infrastructure.

The members of the Climate Justice Working Group—and some members of the CAC itself—are pushing for the council to look more critically at some of the industry-specific plans coming from the advisory panels. The transportation plan, in particular, has faced criticism for not adequately taking the needs of communities into account.

“We are working really, really hard to not just be disruptors, but really hold [the Climate Action Council] accountable to what the bill’s intentions originally are,” Climate Justice Working Group member Rahwa Ghirmatzion told organizers at a recent meeting of NY Renews, a coalition of climate and community activists in the state.

A key role of the Climate Justice Working Group—and one that has proved a very thorny problem to solve—is coming up with a definition for how those “disadvantaged communities” should be identified, based on climate and pollution impacts and socioeconomic factors. The official definition is vital to the plan, not just because those communities face the greatest climate problems, but because the state’s climate law mandates that between 35 and 40 percent of state climate investments must benefit disadvantaged communities.

It’s very challenging to think of what our plan looks like without a significant framework of how that definition is going to apply,” says Raya Salter, a policy attorney for WE ACT for Environmental Justice who sits on the Climate Action Council.

What does seem likely is that when the definition is nailed down, it will include a double-digit percentage of all New Yorkers, in rural and urban communities. The Biden administration is looking to New York State as a model here; a presidential executive order earlier this year explicitly adopts New York’s target of directing 40 percent of climate action benefits toward disadvantaged communities, so it’s especially important that New York gets it right.

Big Data Dump

The CAC’s most recent meeting, on October 14, focused on a massive information dump from state analysts who have been crunching the numbers on what adopting the panels’ recommendations for each sector of the economy would mean for emissions and energy use in the state.

“Good Lord,” said CAC co-chair Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, with a weary laugh as the online meeting wrapped up after four hours of dense technical analysis and more than 100 PowerPoint slides.

Carl Mas, who directs NYSERDA’s Energy and Environment Analysis department, presented the results of the team’s “integration analysis” that modeled the impacts and costs of the recommendations made by all of the industry-specific advisory panels, and layered them with two different possible future scenarios. One involves greater reliance on “low-carbon” fuels drawn from renewable sources instead of fossil oil and gas; in the other, New York aggressively seeks to move away from all forms of combustion, and relies more on electricity instead. 

The team found some interesting differences between the two scenarios, but they are broadly similar. Both paths involve widespread electrification of heating and transportation, the mass buildout of renewable energy, large investments in energy efficiency, and deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions across the economy. Both would see emissions drop more than a third from 1990 levels in this decade, and by 95 percent or more by 2050.

What’s the Bottom Line? 

In both paths, decarbonization comes with a big price tag—but also big benefits. 

The largest cost comes from investment in buildings to electrify their heating systems and make them more energy efficient. The next biggest expense is the cost of improvements to the electrical generation system itself: more transmission, more solar and wind buildout, more battery power storage, and eventually more “firm” zero-carbon power capacity in the form of green hydrogen to ensure overall grid reliability during times when demand is high and renewable power generation is low.

The low-carbon fuel scenario has a higher estimated price tag: $340 billion, as calculated in current dollars, compared to $280 billion for the scenario that moves to decarbonize more aggressively and pursue the early retirement of fuel-burning equipment. The higher cost of the low-carbon fuels scenario is driven partly by the need to make big investments in biofuels like renewable natural gas and renewable diesel.

click to enlarge In a World of Vague Climate Targets, New York Has a Plan—Almost
Climate Action Council
An estimate of the costs of decarbonization compared to the benefits in avoided emissions and improvements to human health under two possible scenarios.

The costs are large, but the state’s return on investment in climate action is larger, the analysts found. Better health statewide, plus the value of preventing emissions, adds up to benefits that are between $80 and $150 billion greater than the costs of decarbonization.

The calculation of how much New York State would gain in health benefits as a result of transitioning off fossil fuels and reducing upstate wood-burning was new to the council, and pretty dramatic. “We set the bar of trying to more comprehensively look at health than anyone has in the past, and I think we have succeeded,” Mas said. 

Most of the health benefits of decarbonization will come from reducing the fine particles that are created whenever fuel is burned, which cause asthma and heart disease. Mas told the council that there are currently about 4,000 premature deaths a year caused by the burning of fossil fuels in New York.

So far, the state’s math on the benefits of climate action doesn’t include other hard-to-quantify factors like job creation—and because the transition to renewable energy is likely to involve a lot of green jobs and workforce development, as well as a greater reliance on energy produced within New York State, those might add up too. The analysis weighs the total benefit to human health and lives extended by decarbonization in New York at somewhere between $100 billion and $167 billion—and if it seems perverse to put a price tag on human life, that’s the most common way for governments to ensure that life gets valued at all in the act of weighing costs against benefits.

click to enlarge In a World of Vague Climate Targets, New York Has a Plan—Almost
Climate Action Council
Estimated per capita value of health benefits of New York’s planned reductions in fossil fuel and wood combustion.

But the largest slice of the benefits achieved through decarbonization, in both scenarios, comes from the value of avoiding emissions. New York State’s method for counting the “social cost of carbon,” as of 2021, assigns a dollar value to each of the major greenhouse gases that corresponds to how potent a heat-trapping gas it is and how much climate damage it wreaks: $121 a ton for carbon dioxide, $2,700 a ton for methane, $42,000 a ton for nitrous oxide. All told, the combined value of all of those avoided emissions adds up to a whopping $260 billion.

Different economists—and different governments—use different figures to calculate the social cost of carbon, and not all are as high as New York’s. The federal government currently uses a figure of $51 a ton for carbon dioxide, which some prominent economists think is too low. Nobel prizewinners Joseph Stiglitz and Lord Nicholas Stern published a paper earlier this year that called on the US government to set the value of avoided carbon dioxide emissions to at least $100 a ton.

How Will We Get There? 

Decarbonizing buildings is key to realizing New York’s zero-carbon ambitions—and the nation’s. About 29 percent of US emissions can be traced to buildings, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions estimates. In New York, the number is 60 percent, NYSERDA estimates.

Making the electrical grid zero-carbon will go a long way toward reducing buildings-related emissions. But across the state, heating—and, to a lesser extent, cooking and clothes drying—relies on direct combustion of fossil fuels inside homes and buildings.

Tackling those direct emissions is a challenge, especially for New York’s existing housing stock, which spans a wild diversity of architectural styles and is one of the oldest in the nation. But the most important technological tool for getting New York’s buildings off fossil fuels is already making inroads on the problem: The heat pump. 

Designed to collect and concentrate heat from outside air or from the ground, even in subzero temperatures, an ultra-efficient electric heat pump can function as a building heater in the winter and an air conditioner in summer. They have been widely adopted in Norway and Sweden—nations that share with New York a tendency toward long, cold, dark winters. If installed right, heat pumps cut down dramatically on emissions and bills, and recent improvements in the technology have made them much better at operating in the depths of the Northeastern winter. The ground source variety is even more of an energy-saver than a heat pump that collects heat from the air.

click to enlarge In a World of Vague Climate Targets, New York Has a Plan—Almost
Climate Action Council
The projected shift toward electrification of residential heating under the scenario of accelerated transition away from combustion.

The main barrier to adoption is up-front cost. Ground source heat pumps, which require placing a large loop of refrigerant fluid underground, are especially pricey, and often logistically challenging. Spurring widespread adoption of heat pumps will probably involve changes to building code and new financial incentives for building owners that go beyond what the state already funds.

New York is home to the world’s largest communal steam heat system: the Con Edison steam district in New York City, which provides heat powered by natural gas to more than 1,500 buildings. Decarbonizing that system is a tricky problem; the CAC is looking into the prospect of powering it with “green hydrogen,” which uses a process driven by renewable energy to create storable zero-carbon fuel.

A lot of decarbonization can also be achieved by making homes and buildings more energy-efficient with good insulation and other measures, and that will be part of the state’s road map too. 

Transportation is another big slice of the pie, currently making up 36 percent of New York’s emissions. Tackling that will require a shift toward electric vehicles, which will happen faster for light-duty cars than for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. But even if New York’s plan to shift all new car sales to electric vehicles by 2035 goes into effect, it will be decades before most of the older gas-fueled cars on the road are out of commission. Investments in public transit and more pedestrian-friendly development will help too; state analysts say the plan taking shape is expected to reduce vehicle miles traveled in New York by 6 percent. 

“It may not sound like a lot, but that is an incredible level of ambition,” Mas told the Council. 

What Will Happen to the Power Grid? 

Because of its heavy reliance on hydropower and nuclear energy, New York’s electrical system is already lower-emissions than most of the nation, especially upstate. But natural gas power makes up about 40 percent of the state’s power generation—and, because of the important role of “peaker” plants in keeping the lights on during periods of high demand, more than two-thirds of the state’s power-producing capacity. To hit the state’s goal of a fully decarbonized grid by 2040, all of that gas power will have to be replaced by renewables or another form of zero-carbon power.

The state’s plan for decarbonizing the grid will involve large buildouts of solar and wind energy, and also improvements to the state’s aging transmission system, which currently has bottlenecks that present a problem for getting clean power into energy-hungry New York City. Short-term battery storage will also need to be built, to help even out the load on the grid.

Right now, the state’s electrical grid hits peak use in summer, when demand for cooling is highest. But as homes and buildings will gradually shift from heating with fuel-burning systems to using heat pumps that run on electricity, state analysts predict that the grid will shift to peaking in the winter.

click to enlarge In a World of Vague Climate Targets, New York Has a Plan—Almost
Santeri Viinamäki/Wikimedia Commons
Mitsubishi Electric MUZ-FD25VABH room air conditioner, mounted outside a home.

By 2050, New York will need to build between about 21 and 25 gigawatts of additional “firm capacity” zero-carbon power that can be deployed anytime to make sure the grid is reliable, the analysts told the Climate Action Council. They predict that this new capacity will come from green hydrogen—a technology that is currently feasible, but a lot more expensive than just directly using renewable energy to create electrical power. Neither scenario in the analysis modeled the building of new nuclear capacity in New York.

Where Will the Money Come From? 

With much of the work of drafting a technological path to a net-zero economy by 2050 more or less complete, the biggest outstanding question before the council is how to pay for it—and how to make sure that cost doesn’t fall on ordinary New Yorkers.

“The technologies are there. The funding mechanisms are not so clear,” said Cornell geochemist Robert Howarth, a prominent methane researcher who sits on the CAC, at the October 14 meeting.

In its draft scoping plan, the CAC might recommend setting a price for carbon that would be paid by large emitters. But council members want to understand the impacts of a carbon price better before they build one into their road map for the state—and there are a lot of unknowns.

How much will a carbon price do, by itself, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and drive the adoption of zero-carbon technology? How will a price on carbon hit differently in hard-to-electrify industries? How will it impact consumer behavior and the labor market? Can it be combined with household rebates so polluters don’t pass on their costs to low- and moderate-income households? And then there’s the issue of leakage: If New York has a carbon price, and other nearby states don’t, will either trade or emissions just be pushed out of state?

A lot of complicated systems analysis still needs to be done in order to answer these questions, and state analysts aren’t quite there yet, to the consternation of some of the council members.

“We’re working as fast as we can. We recognize the importance of this,” Mas told the CAC. “Whatever work we can accomplish this fall will have to be just our starting point.”

When New York’s 2022 legislative session begins, the pressure will be on the state senate and assembly to deal with the question of funding—and legislators will be looking to the CAC’s draft plan as a guide. Environmentalists and activists will press hard for the passage of the Climate and Community Investment Act next year, which would enact a carbon price and raise $15 billion, about a third of which would be directly given back as rebate checks to 60 percent of New York households on the lower end of the income scale.

What Else Is Happening?

Even before the CAC’s draft plan emerges, agencies in New York have already begun to incorporate climate goals into their decisionmaking.

That has already resulted in some big policy shifts. The DEC’s recent denial of permits for two proposed natural gas power projects, Astoria and Danskammer, sent shock waves through the energy world: Denying a power plant permit based on noncompliance with state climate targets was a groundbreaking move for the agency, and one that might herald a new way of doing business at the DEC. 

Also in the works at the DEC are new regulations aimed at reducing methane emissions from drilling, pipelines, and other fossil fuel infrastructure. A proposed set of regulations was released this spring, but the final regulations have not been enacted yet. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is also working on a methane rule, another area where New York is ahead of the rest of the nation on climate.

A recent move by New York State financial regulators might have important climate impacts too. The Department of Financial Services recently released guidance for the insurance industry that requires underwriters to take climate risks into account, and provides a framework for how to do that. New York is the first state to act on this front, and the guidance could be a model for other states to follow.

After the release of the CAC’s draft scoping plan, New Yorkers should expect to see more state agencies start to take climate into account in their key planning and decisionmaking.

“It’s going to fundamentally require action across all sectors within our society. Hands down. Public and private,” NYSERDA president and CAC co-chair Doreen Harris said at the October meeting.

It’s a monumental task. But the more deeply New York looks into what decarbonization will do to New York lives and livelihoods, the clearer the benefits are—and not just in the form of avoided planetary heating down the road, but for human health and flourishing right now. Council member Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates NY, told NY Renews members that the health analysis presented to the council was an eye-opener.

“I think finally, the council and people who have been paying attention to it are getting a real understanding of the human toll,” Iwanowicz said. “The faster we move to full electrification across all of our sectors and economy, the less people get sick and die prematurely, and the faster our economy wins.”

Lissa Harris

Lissa Harris is a staff writer at The River and a volunteer firefighter. She was the founding editor of the Watershed Post, a site that covered local news in the rural Catskills from 2010 to 2017.
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