New York Finally Has a Climate Plan. Now Comes the Hard Part.
Renewable wind energy production in Madison County, New York. | Chesapeake Bay Program

New York Finally Has a Climate Plan. Now Comes the Hard Part.

More than three years after the state passed its sweeping climate bill, the ball is back in lawmakers’ court.

EXACTLY THREE-AND-A-HALF YEARS after New York passed “the most comprehensive and aggressive climate change legislation in the nation,” the state issued a plan for implementing it.

On Monday, the Climate Action Council approved its final scoping plan, a blueprint for the state to deliver on the mandate of the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. All but three of the council’s 22 members voted to approve the plan, with representatives from the fossil fuel, utility, and power industries casting the dissenting votes.

“Today, we’re making history,” said environmental commissioner Basil Seggos shortly after the vote. “The final scoping plan is big, it’s bold, and it’s visionary. It’s the most comprehensive document for any state, as it charts a path forward on addressing the climate crisis.”

The state aims to unleash a wholesale transformation of the economy that would create more than 200,000 jobs by 2030, according to the plan’s projections, while displacing about a tenth as many. It would transform everything from apartments to agriculture, while steering billions in investment towards communities that have long borne the brunt of pollution. And it would bring about the rapid emission cuts the 2019 law requires, driving toward a net-zero economy by 2050.

Monday’s vote marked the culmination of hundreds of meetings and thousands of public comments. And yet key pillars of the plan remain undefined: Where will the money come from? (The plan lays out a version of cap-and-trade as one possible funding strategy, but the details could take at least a year to flesh out — and the legislature could still chart a different course.) Which communities will reap the benefits? (The law requires apportioning spending in “disadvantaged communities,” but a final definition of who qualifies is not expected until the spring.)

The biggest question, though, is whether the state will actually enact the plan it has commissioned. The climate action roadmap remains just a set of recommendations; the legislature and the administration of Governor Kathy Hochul must now decide how seriously to take them. With the guidelines now in place, Hochul’s executive budget — due on February 1 — and ensuing negotiations will be the first battleground.

Critics have argued the protracted, wonky process served in part as a distraction from those political bodies, giving politicians an excuse to punt on tough questions. Lawmakers have indeed often pointed to the unfinished plan as a reason to hold off on major climate spending.

From left to right, Climate Action Council members Doreen Harris, Basil Seggos, Peter Iwanowicz, and Donna DeCarolis, speaking at Monday’s meeting.

“We created a committee to make recommendations,” Senator Liz Krueger, chair of the body’s influential finance committee, told New York Focus in November. “So a decision to take certain actions prior to hearing from your experts, in fairness, didnt make as much sense.”

Krueger declined to comment on the final plan before reviewing it fully. She previously called the council’s work a “linchpin” of the climate law that would guide lawmakers’ work in the coming months, giving renewed momentum to legislation like the $10 billion NY Renews package she has endorsed.

Senator Pete Harckham, rumored to be in the running to chair the chamber’s environmental committee, offered a similar answer when asked about climate funding earlier this month. The scoping plan “is the playbook that we need to follow” for climate action, he said. “Let’s itemize what the priorities in that are. And then we find the money from there, rather than just saying, ‘Let’s fund this, let’s fund that.’”

Climate organizers, meanwhile, say the plan mostly just reinforces demands they’ve been making for the last three years.

“It’s now game time — no more excuses,” said Pete Sikora, climate and community campaigns director for the advocacy group New York Communities for Change. “The state has wasted the last three years, by and large, and it is time [for the governor] to turn the big talk into reality.”

“Nothing about the scoping plan alters our plans to push forward,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and a steering committee member of NY Renews.

But their opponents aren’t going anywhere, either including the groups led by the few council members who voted against the plan.

“The scoping plan doesn’t go far enough to ensure a responsible energy future for New York consumers,” said Donna DeCarolis, president of the Buffalo-based gas utility National Fuel. Its “undue reliance on electrification” will put residents at risk if the grid fails, she said, and the plan lacks a clear accounting of what that transition will cost them.

National Fuel has spent over $1 million since 2016 lobbying against New York climate legislation, according to filings compiled by the left-leaning Public Accountability Initiative.

Gavin Donohue, president of the power industry trade group Independent Power Producers of New York (IPPNY), voiced similar concerns, though not before taking a moment to reminisce with the fellow council members he’d spent so much of the last few years arguing against.

“Peter may not want to admit this, but he and I went to college together,” he said, gesturing across the table at Peter Iwanowicz, director of Environmental Advocates NY.

Donohue went on to lambast parts of the plan as “complete magic.”

So what made it into New York’s final climate plan, and what will it take to deliver on it?

Buildings

By the state’s accounting, New York’s buildings make up its largest source of carbon emissions — roughly a third come from heating and cooling homes and workplaces. And because it can involve extensive construction work in the spaces where people live, buildings represent one of the hardest sectors to decarbonize.

The plan’s approach to the task hasn’t changed much since last year, with one notable exception: The recommended date to ban fossil fuels from new construction has been pushed back by a year — from 2024 to 2025 for buildings under four stories and from 2027 to 2028 for larger buildings.

Council member Robert Howarth, a biochemist at Cornell University, noted his disappointment with the delay at Monday’s meeting. He argued that lawmakers should press ahead with the earlier timeline, one that New York City has already adopted and that climate groups sought unsuccessfully to pass through the legislature last session.

New construction is low-hanging fruit, however, compared to retrofitting the state’s more than 6 million existing buildings. On that front, the scoping plan calls for electrifying at least 1 million homes with heat pumps by 2030, a goal that Hochul has embraced. For large buildings, it recommends emulating New York City’s Local Law 97 statewide, which would set a cap on emissions per square foot. It also highlights the need for insulating, weatherizing, and improving energy efficiency before going electric, to avoid unnecessarily straining the grid — and loading up utility bills.

The plan acknowledges that all of this will cost a lot up front: It projects annual investment in upgrading buildings will need to grow to $5 billion in 2030 and to $30 billion in 2050. Much of that spending will be private, but the state will need to significantly step up public incentives to steer the market in the right direction, it says.

The plan stops short, though, of proposing how much to spend. That’s “a big incomplete if you’re rating the plan,” Sikora said.

An advisory group told the council last year that the state should spend at least $1 billion per year to help low- and moderate-income households go green. Sikora wants to see the state pitch in even more — up to $5 billion per year — through taxes on the wealthy.

He also lamented the council’s recommended 2030 deadline for phasing out gas boilers as too late.

“We’re in a game now where every day matters. Every month matters. Every year really matters,” Sikora said. “The timeline to start on is now.”

Transportation and Land Use

New York’s second-largest source of emissions, transportation, is one that more often makes the headlines. The scoping plan makes clear that policies like the plan to ban sales of gasoline-powered cars by 2035, as Hochul directed the Department of Environmental Conservation to pursue in October, are just the beginning of meeting the state’s climate mandate. The plan envisages a large-scale shift toward public transportation and reforms to land-use and zoning codes to allow denser development.

“Smart growth is compact, mixed-use, mixed-income community development that is walkable, bikeable, and transit-accessible,” the plan notes. It cuts carbon emissions mainly by reducing car use.

Yet the plan once again stops short of setting hard targets for getting people out of their cars. The meat of those decisions will take place through the budget process, as lawmakers dole out federal funds passed in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law. A bill passed in June that would steer more of that funding towards “complete streets” is currently on the governor’s desk and facing the threat of a veto.

Reforming land use and zoning, meanwhile, brings the fight down to the local level, where homeowners and officials often fight tooth and nail against denser development. Some suburbs have bucked that trend, though, and Iwanowicz said on Monday that more will need to follow for the state to meet its climate targets. Hochul has said that promoting statewide housing construction will be a major focus of her legislative agenda next year.

Electric Power

Another critical area that hinges on local cooperation is the state’s renewable energy buildout. On this front, the climate law does not leave much ambiguity: By 2030, 70 percent of the state’s power supply must be renewable.

Yet the state has built next to no large-scale renewables since the law was passed in 2019, and very few in the decade before that. To catch up, it will need to ramp up renewable development at least tenfold over the seven years.

“The buildout that we’re talking about here is unbelievable,” Donohue said. “The state has never seen a buildout like this.”

The plan also highlights the need for new transmission lines to transport all that new renewable energy — projects that face local opposition of their own, in some cases stretching across hundreds of miles.

Even that enormous buildout will not be enough to meet the state’s 2040 target of a fully emissions-free grid. State analysts project this will demand almost 18 gigawatts’ worth of yet-undetermined “zero-carbon firm” technologies to complement renewables — energy sources that don’t emit carbon but can be relied upon at any time, unlike renewables dependent on wind or sun. That’s more than 40 percent of the state’s total electric capacity today.

Two such technologies listed in the plan are enhanced geothermal power and, more controversially, advanced nuclear. Progress in the development of small modular reactors has fueled talk of a nuclear comeback among energy wonks, but the technology remains anathema to much of the environmental movement, largely on account of the long-lasting waste it creates.

Alternatives fuels — especially green hydrogen, but also “renewable” natural gas or biogas — also remain in the picture, though the extent of their role remains to be defined. Some environmental advocates bemoan their inclusion at all, while industry representatives complain that they haven’t been prioritized enough. The council also said that hydrogen produced using nuclear energy could count as a “green” power source.

The debate is sure to rage on as New York marches toward its deadline for a zero-emissions grid — now armed with a 445-page plan, but little more certainty.