New York Assembly Approves Climate Bill That Would Cut Emissions to Zero

The bill, endorsed by a broad coalition, is also notable for its emphasis on environmental and economic justice, advocates say.

People take part in a climate march at City Hall in New York City. Credit: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Share this article

This story was updated at 1:15 am ET on June 2, 2016, to reflect the state assembly’s vote on the climate bill.

The New York State Assembly approved the nation’s most ambitious climate change bill Wednesday. The vote came hours after a broad coalition of environmental justice, climate activist, conservation and labor groups took to the State Capitol in Albany urging lawmakers to swiftly pass the bill before the legislative session ends on June 16.

The legislation requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from major sources to zero by 2050. That would demand a near total decarbonization of its economy, and it would put New York among the world’s leaders on forceful climate action. To achieve it, the bill gives the state until 2030 to get at least 50 percent of its electricity from clean energy.

By next year New York would have to generate 27 percent from renewable sources. In February, New York got about 28 percent of its electricity from renewables, mainly from hydroelectric power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The legislation, called the New York State Climate and Community Protection Act, is also notable for its emphasis on environmental and economic justice, according to the bill’s advocates. It aims to “prioritize the safety and health of disadvantaged communities” and “it creates good jobs and protects workers and communities,” a memo by lawmakers said.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright, a Democrat, introduced the bill on May 23. So far, a companion proposal has not been introduced in the state senate, with only eight working days left in the legislative session. Unlike the assembly, which is 70 percent Democratic, the state senate is more evenly split between parties.

“I believe that it is likely to pass in the Assembly,” Englebright told InsideClimate News before the vote took place. “In the very near term, I’m hoping that we can see similar action in the state’s senate, so we can put it on to the governor’s desk.”

“It’s a very important bill. I can’t think of too many bills more important than it,” he said. “Climate change is already happening. It’s already costing our state in not only dollars but already in lives.”

The bill does not specify how the carbon targets are to be met, deferring decisions on such possibilities as a new cap-and-trade or carbon tax mechanism.

It does say, however, that 40 percent of the funds generated from any new market scheme established to meet the targets must be used for research and development of energy programs in disadvantaged communities. It earmarks money from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund toward building clean energy projects and improving energy efficiency in low-income housing areas, including solar installations, wind turbines and heat pumps.

The bill also mandates that the state’s energy transition create new jobs for the people likely to lose their jobs as New York shifts away from fossil fuels. These jobs in clean energy would have to pay well, involve training and career development opportunities and be available to members of all communities. Any major energy or climate project receiving financial support from the state must pay building service workers and construction workers fair wages and offer other protective policies for workers, such as workers’ compensation insurance.

New York’s communities need jobs and opportunities to address climate change and speed up the energy transition now—“not in a decade”—said Juan Camilo, director of research at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

NYC-EJA is one of the more than 50 groups that make up the coalition called NY Renews, which organized the Wednesday rally. The group, created this year, grew out of the grassroots organizing around the People’s Climate March in New York in 2014, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from around the globe marched for climate action ahead of a United Nations climate summit.

More than 500 attended the event, where leading voices of environmental activism, grassroots organizing, environmental justice and labor gave speeches.

When Superstorm Sandy hit, “many of our members were among the New Yorkers who struggled to rebuild their homes and their communities,” said Hector Figuroa, a labor leader, in a statement of support. “That’s why we’re urging Gov. Cuomo and Albany lawmakers to support the NYS Climate & Community Protection Act, which would provide the protections from climate change that working people need and invest in green infrastructure and good green jobs to ensure a brighter, healthier future.”

Figuroa is president of a union chapter known as 32BJ, part of the national Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a group that last week added environmental justice to its platform.

The new bill expands on the state’s existing greenhouse emissions reduction goal to cut emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. California, long the nation’s climate action leader, has that same goal, which is also in line with targets promised by the world’s nations in the Paris climate agreement.

The proposed legislation also solidifies the renewable energy goal of getting half the state’s electricity from renewable sources proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year, an energy goal shared by California.

The new proposal tasks the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) with creating greenhouse gas emission limits for specific industries, rules for meeting these reduction goals, such as a carbon tax, and then tracking those reductions over time. To provide input on these regulations, a new group will form called the New York State Climate Action Council involving members across the state government, from the governor’s office to state legislators to regulators. New York already is part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate emissions trading system to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from power plants.

According to Englebright, the bill “takes into account the needs of disadvantaged communities in a way that is more robust than we’ve seen…This is an important emphasis in the bill.”

Before drafting emissions reduction rules, the DEC will have to conduct a study identifying the barriers that disadvantaged communities face in accessing and owning clean energy sources, as well as other climate-related programs. Two new groups will form—the disadvantaged communities working group and the environmental justice advisory group—to help consult on this study, and the resulting policies and regulations that come out of it.

“This is a huge thing for environmental justice,” said Camilo. “Often times, the fight for adoption or mitigation of climate change impacts doesn’t necessarily address the disproportionate impacts that low-income communities are or may be experiencing.”