New York Passes Nation’s Most Comprehensive Clean Energy Legislation
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us. New York is the fourth most populous state in the country and the third largest economy in the country. Now it’s poised to adopt the country’s most ambitious climate bill you’ve seen, including 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. New York passed this groundbreaking legislation Thursday that will say it will be 100% carbon-free by 2040. It’s being called New York’s Green Deal. Well, now it heads to Governor Cuomo’s desk where he is expected to sign it. This is the first legislation passed by any major jurisdiction that’s directly linked with the recommendations of the Paris Climate Agreement. Now, joining to talk about all this is Adrien Salazar, who works with New York Renews and is Campaign Strategist on Climate Equity at the think tank Demos. Adrien, welcome. Good to have you with us.
ADRIEN SALAZAR Good to be here.
MARC STEINER So this has been interesting. I mean, when you watch the politics of New York State that had this core of conservative Democrats caucusing with Republicans, they were defeated— kind of, pushing Cuomo a little bit further to more progressive issues, and now this has finally passed. It will go probably to the Senate and most likely to sign by Cuomo. So talk a bit about the political coalition that you all helped form that made this happen and how that happened.
ADRIEN SALAZAR Right. So New York Renews is a coalition of over 180 organizations across the State— upstate, downstate, rural, urban— and they represent a vast swath of the state’s population from environmental advocates to racial justice organizations, to labor and faith-based groups as well. This coalition formed in 2014 after The People’s Climate March in New York City, and had the interest in galvanizing that energy in this state to develop an agenda for New York to lead on climate policy. The original bill that was developed, The Climate and Community Protection Act, came out of that statewide organizing. And the New York Renews coalition, which centers communities at the frontlines and the intersections of all of these constituents, is one of the major reasons that this bill got that the momentum that it had and got across the finish line this legislative session.
MARC STEINER Now let’s get in some brass tacks. There was a level of opposition here as well. Many called this bill “utopian.” The Business Council of New York State said, for instance, that a zero-emissions mandate is unrealistic. And so, there are a lot of questions here. I mean, A—I mean, does New York have the technology resources to actually change its grid off of fossil fuels by 2040? I mean, and completely by 2050? Some people would say this is not realistic. Where will the energy come from? How’s this going to be done? And New York is not alone. We’ll talk about that in a minute. There are other states around the country who are also pushing this and pushing ideas similar to this. Talk a bit about that, what this battle is over, the realistic and unrealistic nature of what it means to be fossil-free by 2050?
ADRIEN SALAZAR Well, Marc, when you look at actually where the politics aligned and who was advocating for the passage of this bill, you’ll find that there was actually a political consensus to get New York to lead on addressing the climate crisis. When you talk about the positions that the Business Council has taken—You know, this bill was first introduced three years ago or four years ago now. And when that happened, the Business Council said getting New York to commit to a renewable energy target would result in the end of civilization in New York State, which is a ridiculous statement. You have to look at the interests that the Business Council represents, and the interests of the coalition and all of the people who came out of the woodwork in support of passing this legislation, including our political allies in the legislature. In the end, Governor Cuomo realized that the crisis that we’re facing, the climate crisis, is urgent and that New York City has the opportunity to lead by transitioning its entire economy to a renewable energy economy. That is how we got here, is by building a political consensus, by organizing people on the ground— ordinary people like you and me— and working with our legislative allies in the legislature who are ready to get New York there.
MARC STEINER So let me ask, may I push that a tad further? I mean, when I read what was going on in New York, clearly labor unions as an example were split on this— some unions for this, some against. Historically, many labor unions have opposed this legislation because— and I think they’re not totally incorrect about this— it has an adverse effect on the workers they represent who make less money in renewables than they would working in coal or anywhere else. I think that’s one of the biggest fears that unions have, is that they will not be making $20-30 an hour. They’ll be forced to go to only $10 or 15 an hour, which is the norm in the solar industry. So talk a bit about that, what that argument was, and what is the plan for the future to ensure these 150,000 jobs that people say are going to be created, actually pay not just a living wage, but a wage you can live on.
ADRIEN SALAZAR Right. And so, I can’t speak specifically to the position of labor because I don’t come from a labor organization, but I will say that there were several unions who backed the bill and you’re right. There were some who didn’t speak up on it but many who did, and that is because a good constituency of labor recognizes that in order to get to a renewable energy economy to address the climate crisis, we’re going to need to move the whole economy, and that’s going to generate jobs. A study from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that if we transition in New York State to 100% renewable by 2050, it’s going to create over 200,000 jobs. We want those jobs to be good jobs for the people who will be, you know, working, putting the infrastructure in place for renewable energy. The second point I’d make is actually the original bill, the Climate and Community Protection Act, had very strong labor protections that ultimately did not end up in the final version of the bill because of whatever was negotiated in that 11th hour. Several of our labor allies, including those who were part of the coalition, were upset about that. We really are going to continue to be fighting to ensure that we have strong labor standards for the jobs that are created in a renewable energy transition, that we have protections for workers, that we have good training programs, and that those are high-quality jobs for working families.
MARC STEINER Yeah, I mean, I’m not going to belabor the point because we have so much to talk about here— no pun intended [laughs]. But, I mean, that’s been one of the big sticking points everywhere in the country. It has been the, kind of, economic impact on working people’s lives this has had because, I mean, unions fought for certain wages and that means a fight may have to happen again, but that’s another topic. So speaking in that vein, I mean, we know that the fossil fuel economy has, kind of, had this disproportionate effect on poor and working-class communities. So I mean, talk a bit about how this bill—Tell us how this bill, kind of, deals with equity, ensuring that poor people aren’t taking the brunt of the transition. Wind and solar are more expensive, I said earlier, so talk a bit about how that investment and disinvestment is going to work, and how clear is it? How’s it being defined?
ADRIEN SALAZAR So you’re right, Marc, that we know that the impacts of climate change layer on to existing inequalities in the state. The people on the frontlines of pollution historically and the impacts of climate change are the most vulnerable, and we need to design climate policy to invest in those communities. The original bill, the Climate and Community Protection Act, set up a target of 40% direct investment from energy funds of the state into what we call, disadvantaged communities. In the final bill, it was dropped to 35% of the benefits of investment, a kind of ambiguous term that we’re a little bit concerned about. But still, the bill repeatedly addresses getting resources to disadvantaged communities in this transition. You know, just like I mentioned before with labor, we want to make sure that a transition to a renewable economy is a just and equitable transition, and that means addressing inequality and investing in communities that have been impacted and will continue to be impacted by climate change. There are several components of the bill that continue to do that.
MARC STEINER So it sounds like there may be still a bit of a struggle in this once it’s passed to make sure that this takes place adequately and equitably.
ADRIEN SALAZAR That’s right. There are several pieces that we had fought for to ensure that there was equity, and some of them we got in the final version of the bill. For example, there is an Environmental Justice Working Group, a Climate Justice Working Group. These are about community engagement. These are about people helping make decisions about the economic shift that we need to take. There is consideration of whole pollutants which contribute to public health impacts, like PM2.5 particles and nitrous oxide. And then, there’s regulatory screens to ensure that there aren’t any disproportionate impacts, equitably, on different communities. There are some pieces that we were able to get into the final version of the bill, but definitely, this bill is not as strong as the original bill was intended in directing more investments and in securing those protections for labor because those pieces were left out of the final bill.
MARC STEINER So the bill also mandates 70% renewable electricity by 2030. What would that look like? I mean, how can—What does that mean both technically in terms of the work, what it means to have to change the grid? I mean, so talk a bit about that. I mean, that’s where the rubber meets the road and that’s the nitty-gritty of the question about changing to clean energy.
ADRIEN SALAZAR You’re absolutely right. So what the bill has done is set some targets for the state. It’s set a 70% renewable energy target by 2030, 100% by 2040, and 85% emissions reduction economy-wide by 2050. What this means is in the next year actually in the implementation of the bill, the state and its various agencies, like NYSERDA and the DEC, are going to have to develop plans to enact those targets— including regulatory measures, including proposing several programs. We anticipate that the agencies will set up various programs and regulations that will incentivize transition to renewable, to solar, to more development of wind, and that will curb the pollution emissions from existing polluting industries. That means that over time, the incentives will increase for us to transition the state to more and more renewable on a graduated target timeline.
MARC STEINER So in the time we have left, I just want to define some terms here. The bill calls for net-zero emissions by 2050. Just for all of our edification, I mean, what’s the difference between zero and net-zero? What does that mean?
ADRIEN SALAZAR Yes. This was a fight that we also were, you know, we didn’t end up winning what we wanted to get. We wanted the state to commit to zero emissions by 2050, full stop, and we got 85% because there were several interests— including from industry, including some of our legislators, including Governor Cuomo— who were arguing that the state cannot reach 100% by 2050, that it’s too fast of a timeline, and there are some industries that just cannot get there with existing technology. My argument, and our argument as a coalition, is that that is not true and that we can actually incentivize the development of technology by setting a strong target. But in the end, the final bill had some wiggle room and that’s what net-zero means. It means that for some of those industries that will have difficulty meeting that target, instead of actual emissions reduction, they can invest in what we call negative-emissions technologies that capture carbon from the atmosphere, for example, in order to offset their existing emissions. For us, that’s problematic because it basically gives a loophole for continued pollution, and we want to make sure that New York gets to 100%. There is a goal in the bill for 100%, and we hope that New York can commit to that in the future.
MARC STEINER So, very quickly here, in the minute or two that we have left. I’m curious, you know, when you look at New York, California, Colorado, New Mexico, New Jersey Maine, earlier in Hawaii, have already pushed this agenda really hard. It’s as if it’s also resistance to the Trumpian illogic of, as he did this week, opening up coal again to the world and opening up our lands to coal and gas in the west. How do you see this in the entire political battle around energy in the future taking a hold, all these other states doing things similar to New York?
ADRIEN SALAZAR Well I’ll say, Marc, that though we had a few pieces that we fought for that we didn’t win, while this bill is weak on some of the climate justice elements, this is an incredibly strong climate bill in its emissions reduction target, and it’s one of the strongest pieces of legislation that’s moved in the nation. And so, we are anticipating that this bill sets a new standard for the rest of the country. You know, where we saw some shortcomings of the bill, we hope other states rise up to the challenge and say we can do better than New York. But at this moment, we have passed one of the strongest pieces of climate legislation in the country. An economy-wide target is one that is ambitious and one that very few states—I would say maybe New York is the only state that has set an economy-wide target into legislation to get the entire economy to shift to renewable energy, and that is one of the pieces that’s going to really help transform the discourse around what we need to meet the climate crisis in this moment.
MARC STEINER Well, the fight for equity and justice in poor communities is always the one that seems to be the hardest battle to get through in all these things. It calls for, I guess, we just have to keep organizing and fighting. Adrien Salazar works with New York Renews, Campaign Strategist for Demos on Climate Equity. Thank you for your work, Adrien, and thanks so much for joining us here today on The Real News. It’s been a pleasure.
ADRIEN SALAZAR Thank you for having me, Marc.
MARC STEINER And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network and you know this is one of our major topics. We’ll continue. Take care.