By Dave Colon
After an election where the issue saw little mainstream political attention, climate change and what to do about it has come roaring back to the forefront of the New York political scene. Whether it’s because of a recent federal report outlining the economic damage climate change will cause if left unchecked, because New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has used her bully pulpit to push a Green New Deal, or the potential for more action after Democrats won control of the state Senate, there’s increased attention on both new and old legislation to try to beat back rising oceans, extreme weather and their effects.
At both the state and city levels, efforts to combat climate change are likely to be significant topics of discussion in 2019.
New York State
Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat starting his third term, has increasingly spoken out about the climate crisis during his time in office, even if his ideas and rhetoric haven’t always been what climate activists want from him. The state’s Reforming Energy Vision has set energy efficiency goals (a 600 trillion British thermal units efficiency increase) and renewable energy goals (50 percent of electricity) for the year 2030, and Cuomo helped to establish the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of 16 states that have agreed to take measures to get their greenhouse gas emissions down to the level set by the Paris Agreement, despite President Donald Trump’s rejection of it.
The governor also made news with a pair of announcements recently. First, he announced a new New York State Public Service Commission regulation that mandates utilities find ways to cut 31 trillion British thermal units of site energy (which is the heat and electricity consumed by a building), to move towards the goal of saving 185 TBtus 2025 (an energy efficiency framework that the governor said could create 50,000 jobs by 2025) along with an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars to develop better energy storage capabilities statewide.
Second, Cuomo gave a December speech outlining his 2019 legislative agenda, and called for a Green New Deal for New York, though he gave few details. While Cuomo’s Green New Deal is unlikely to look like a state-level version of the one Ocasio-Cortez is pushing nationally, the dual goals of such a program are reducing greenhouse gas emissions by enhancing renewable energies and creating green jobs.
In his speech Cuomo did lay out two central aspects of his Green New Deal vision, which he is expected to expand upon when he presents his State of the State policy book in January: getting the state’s electricity to 100 percent carbon neutrality by 2040 and eventually eliminating the state’s carbon footprint entirely. Cuomo also contrasted his belief and policy plans with that of the Trump administration’s attitude, saying that “federal government still denies climate change, remarkably turning a blind eye to their own government’s scientific report.”
Still, his initial position falls short of what the state’s most vocal climate change activists are calling for. Those activists, who have formed the NY Renews coalition, reacted to Cuomo’s announcement by putting together a slick movie trailer with footage of climate disasters and a press release pointing out that electricity is 20 percent of the state’s total carbon footprint, all in service of continuing to push their gold standard: the Climate and Community Protection Act.
The CCPA, which has passed the state Assembly for three years only to be stalled in the Republican-controlled state Senate that is about to turn to Democratic hands, establishes what advocates have called a “climate justice” framework. In addition to setting legislative targets for the use of renewable energy (50 percent of energy statewide by 2030) and carbon elimination (100 percent fossil fuel free by 2050), the bill also directs any transition project getting state funding to pay a prevailing wage and directs 40 percent of whatever state investment goes towards climate mitigation efforts to go to low-income communities and communities most threatened by climate change. All of which, according to the bill’s prime sponsor in the Senate, state Senator Brad Hoylman, add up to what the Manhattan Democrat says is the best approach to a Green New Deal, “a three-pronged approach: jobs, labor [standards], and protecting vulnerable communities.”
What the ramp up to transition away from fossil fuels will look like is not laid out in detail by the bill, instead the text requires the creation of a New York State Climate Action Council and directs the Department of Environmental Conservation to establish greenhouse gas emissions limits and regulations to achieve those limits. The bill also establishes a Climate Justice Working Group, which would study how to expand renewable energy into disadvantaged communities and would “have a role in determining what that investment would look like,” Hoylman said.
Whether that means a heavy hand from the state or not is something that’s been up for debate, and a place where Cuomo’s proclamation means he may soon weigh in. In a previous interview with Gotham Gazette, three-time Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins — who has been running on a Green New Deal for New York since the 2010 race — suggested that it would take “a World War II-scale mobilization” to prevent catastrophic damage from climate change. “During World War II we nationalized 25 percent of manufacturing in this country to make sure we could turn on a dime to make the weapons we used to beat the Nazis. The private investor-owned utilities and energy companies, they haven’t led the way to clean energy, so we may need more public ownership,” Hawkins suggested.
In Hoylman’s view, the state doesn’t have to seize the means of production or even take on the role of primary investor, as much as it should shape where the market moves money.
“I think it’s a combination of private investment, but with some prodding by the state to direct investment into low-income communities and communities of color, which otherwise might be passed by the marketplace,” Hoylman said of getting renewable power infrastructure into low-income communities. “I see government’s role as a corrective one and making certain that that we’ve solved the collective action problem, which is basically doing nothing and allowing the marketplace to proceed unabated and our dependence on fossil fuels to increase. That might be less expensive in the short term, but it’s going to be more expensive in the long term. And then secondly, protecting those New Yorkers who often get left behind in these types of transitions, in particular where they’re reliant on outdated modes of energy like fossil fuels.”
As the CCPA has languished in the Republican-ruled state Senate, and the years tick closer to 2030, Hoylman said he understands the need to move fast on the legislation when his party takes the helm.
“I think so,” Hoylman said when asked if it was imperative that the CCPA is passed in 2019. “You know, we’re running out of time on a lot of aspects, but certainly, if we’re going to move as quickly as other states like California, we need to pass this bill as soon as possible.”
Hoylman also said that he is sensitive to the challenge that Democrats have in passing the CCPA and the Climate and Community Investment Act, which would help fund transition efforts through a carbon tax, while avoiding the pitfall of looking like the tax-hiking and regulation-spewing liberals Republicans warned they would be, but that inaction would be even worse.
“I think a Democratic Senate will be very sensitive to raising taxes of any sort without a real understanding of what the point behind them is,” Holyman said. “We think the Climate and Community Protection Act actually creates revenue, given the costs associated with climate change, so I would ask, ‘what is the cost of us not doing anything.’”
While the governor hasn’t signaled a position on the bill, and seems to have left the specifics for his Green New Deal for his State of the State, Hoylman praised moves that Cuomo has made on the climate with his executive powers, like establishing a commitment to 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030 and banning fracking. With both houses of the Legislature and the governor himself invested in the larger idea of transitioning away from fossil fuels, Hoylman said he sees a paradigm “that will push Albany to act more decisively on the issue.”
Whatever any final Green New Deal for New York looks like will be a product of negotiations between Cuomo and the Legislature, possibly as part of the late March or early April state budget agreement for the next fiscal year.
The new chair of the Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee, State Senator Todd Kaminsky of Long Island has said he is excited to get to work fighting climate change. “In the face of climate change and the dire threat it poses to New York and our planet, our State must emerge as an environmental leader and demonstrate that we understand the urgency at hand and the need to act accordingly,” Kaminsky said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “I plan to hit the ground running as chair to take more aggressive steps to protect our environment and New Yorkers, including holding hearings on the Climate and Community Protection Act, and enacting legislation in support of other resiliency and renewable energy efforts.”
As Kaminsky indicated, while the CCPA is the main event of this year’s legislative session when it comes to climate change activism, there’s a lot on the undercard that the state has been grappling with. While public transit is usually thought of as the domain of New York City and the surrounding metro area, and the governor’s Buffalo Billion II program doesn’t have the cleanest lineage, advocates for a Buffalo light rail expansion are hoping Senator Tim Kennedy’s place as chair of the Transportation Committee will mean more funding for expanding the system as the city determines the best path forward.
Elsewhere, the state is pushing for renewable energy with an RFP out asking for vendors to deliver 800 megawatts of offshore wind power (with winners to be announced in the spring of 2019) which was a goal in Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State book, and the NY-Sun initiative, which offers education and financing for solar projects and has supported almost 90,000 solar projects around the state.
There’s also the New York Green Bank, which has invested over $500 million in areas like community solar, energy efficiency and storage projects. The Cuomo administration has continued work on its RetrofitNY project, an effort to find ways to affordably and scalably retrofit multifamily buildings in order to cut their emissions, although the effort hasn’t made it out of the “proof of concept and design phase yet.”
Outside of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, there’s also the ongoing argument over Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s management of the state pension fund, which is worth more than $200 billion. Environmental advocates have pressed DiNapoli to divest the state’s pension funds from fossil fuel companies, a move that they say would not only hurt companies who contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, but also make the state pension fund more money. DiNapoli, for his part, has argued against making any sudden, sweeping moves without studying their impact, and that he has a fiduciary duty to get the best return possible for the state, while also putting $10 billion in state pension funds in a low-emissions and clean energy indexes. He’s also argued that by being an activist investor, he can push the companies toward more climate-friendly policies.
New York City
There are also proposals for New York City to take action, independent of the state, with ongoing action to cut emissions and a pair of high-profile bills that were introduced at the end of 2018. The de Blasio administration has included climate change in the OneNYC agenda, setting goals to make New York “the most sustainable big city in the world” and “the most resilient big city in the world.”
Part of OneNYC is the de Blasio administration’s target for emissions cutbacks, the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability put out a Roadmap to 80×50 in 2016 that set a path for emissions reductions by way of energy standards for buildings, expanding the use of renewable energy, increasing the use of mass transit and reducing the amount of waste sent to city landfills.
The city is set to begin construction on the “Big U,” a coastal resiliency measure made up of parkland and berms around lower Manhattan to protect it from flooding, in spring 2020, according to the most recent news provided by the de Blasio administration. The updated plan for the flood protection, which involves raising the East River Park, has been criticized though, for making the project costlier in what critics say is an effort to not inconvenience drivers on the FDR Drive and avoiding dealing with the Parks Department’s lack of any kind of post-storm maintenance budget.
After the mayor got out ahead of allies and even his office with proposed energy efficiency mandates regarding retrofitting and caps on the amount of fossil fuels buildings can burn, the exact ideas he’d proposed never really took off. But, a recently-introduced pair of bills from Queens City Council Member Costa Constantinides run with the idea, and if passed, would introduce new emissions standards for many buildings 25,000 square feet or larger. Since large buildings account for two-thirds of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, backers of the Constantinides bills see retrofitting large buildings by doing things like installing energy efficient HVAC systems, hot water heaters, and electricity and lighting, as one of the most effective ways for the city to cut those emissions 80 percent by 2050. The bills, which had their first hearing in December, would open an Office of Building Energy Performance that can set new buildings emissions standards and also establish a financing program to help the owners of some buildings finance efforts to retrofit their properties to reach the emissions targets the office sets out.
“We need to start where the emissions are, and these large buildings are the right place to do it,” Constantinides said at a hearing to introduce the bills, noting that while buildings larger than 50,000 square feet only make up less than one percent of the city’s building stock, they give off 30 percent of the city’s total emissions. However, while the bill’s supporters have praised the exemption of buildings with at least one rent-stabilized unit from the most stringent efficiency requirements as a necessary way to protect residents from potential rent hikes from upgrades counted as major capital improvements, critics have called the provision a major problem. (In the event that the state rent laws are changed to prevent landlords from passing MCIs on to rent-stabilized tenants though, organizations like New York Communities for Change have expressed support for writing buildings with rent-stabilized units into the law.)
Mark Chambers, director of the de Blasio administration’s Office of Sustainability, told the City Council that the laws could create over 14,000 jobs related to the efforts to retrofit buildings and praised the establishment of a New York City PACE financing program as a way to make sure that property owners themselves aren’t burdened by the efficiency upgrades.
Elsewhere, activists who started a campaign this summer to establish a public bank in New York City recently rallied at City Hall to connect the potential municipal bank with efforts to fight climate change on a local level. First, advocates say that taking billions of city deposits away from larger banks like Chase and Bank of America, who finance fossil fuel extraction with some of their money, would be as effective a strike against fossil fuel reliance as the city’s underway efforts to divest its public pension funds from fossil fuel stock. Additionally, advocates say that a public bank would allow for cheaper financing of small-scale renewable energy projects that will be necessary in the coming transition away from fossil fuels.
“Waterfront solar projects, community solar projects, all of those kind of projects could be funded more easily if the intermediaries that were trying to do the good work didn’t have to go to their very limited pots of money or could get money out of somebody bigger who wasn’t predatory,” Stephan Edel, the director of the New York Working Families Project at the Working Families Party, told Gotham Gazette.
And while Edel had praise for the pension funds and the state’s green bank as effective tools in the transition to a green economy, he also said that a public bank could lend to projects that return on their investment somewhat slower. “A public bank still has to make safe investments, has to make that limited return, but it can look at a longer term set of benefits and it can look at investments that can have a long-term benefit because it’s not looking to get its return in a quarter or make nine percent,” he said.
As for the proposal’s legislative future, the New Economy Project’s Ali Issa told Gotham Gazette that the Public Bank NYC coalition is working with “an array of state and city elected officials, including Council Member Mark Levine” to put a proposal for the bank forward in 2019.
Levine, for his part, provided a statement saying, “though we have made progress divesting from the fossil fuel industry, we must go further. Our City should put its own money to work for New Yorkers through a public bank, which would supercharge investments in critical projects throughout the five boroughs, and return financial power to the people and businesses that need it most.”
This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here