In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, environmental groups are hoping New York emerges as a leader in a renewed fight against climate change.
They have reason to be optimistic: In a New York Daily News op-ed article titled “We Will Lead on Climate Change,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke of the need to plan for a future where extreme weather is the norm, rather than the exception, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, endorsed President Barack Obama, saying he believed Obama would be more likely to tackle climate change.
“Hurricane Sandy has had the effect of putting climate change on the radar again,” said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Environmentalists said New York is already ahead of the curve when it comes to climate change, but needs to do more. In particular, they would like to see the state take the lead in a push to strengthen the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent by 2018.
Founded in 2008, the initiative uses a cap and trade model, capping the total amount of carbon dioxide electric power plants are permitted to generate and requiring power plants to buy “allowances,” or permits, to cover their emissions. Under this model, dirtier power plants end up purchasing more allowances than cleaner plants, because they emit a greater volume of carbon dioxide, and plants with excess allowances can sell them at auction or trade them on the commodities market. In New York, auction proceeds are invested in energy programs.
Last week, groups and agencies with an interest or involvement in the initiative met in Boston and Albany to discuss proposed changes to the group; the updated rules are expected to take effect in January.
“New York is by far the biggest state in RGGI,” said Travis Proulx, communications director for Albany-based Environmental Advocates. “We have the most at stake. We account for between 35 and 40 percent of the pollution, and we’re most at risk from future events.”
Environmental Advocates would like to see the cap on carbon emissions for the coalition of states that belong to the initiative lowered and the price of the allowances purchased by power plants raised.
Right now, the initiative caps carbon emissions at 165 million tons per year, and the cap is scheduled to decrease by 2.5 percent in 2015. But Proulx said member states already emit far less than 165 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, making the cap meaningless; in 2011, power companies in the region emitted 106 million tons of carbon dioxide and in 2012 are expected to emit 91 million. He said the proposed changes would lower the carbon emissions cap, but neither of the cap levels under consideration — 106 million tons and 97 million tons — are lower than the amount of carbon dioxide emitted this year.
“The cap shouldn’t be an arbitrary number,” Proulx said. “Otherwise, there’s no incentive to do better.”
Another problem, Proulx said, is that power companies are buying allowances at rock bottom prices and stockpiling them. Right now, allowances are selling for $1.89 per ton; under the proposed rule changes, the price would increase to $5 per ton in 2014 and $10 per ton in 2020. But Proulx believes the prices should rise more quickly, to make it more difficult for power companies to stockpile allowances.
Haight said she would like to see the initiative expand its focus beyond the energy sector and look to curb other types of greenhouse gases, such as methane.
“We need to do more if we’re serious about addressing climate change,” Haight said.
Other states belonging to the initiative are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Rhode Island; New Jersey withdrew in 2011.
Experts attribute the rise in global temperature to the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal and other human activities that increase the level of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
In his op-ed article, published Nov. 15, Cuomo wrote of the need to take climate change into consideration when locating “critical pieces of our infrastructure,” to “avoid a disaster domino effect, such as the explosion of the Con Ed substation that knocked out power to much of lower Manhattan.” He also stressed the importance of fortifying and upgrading “the systems that paralyze us when they fail,” such as mass transit and cell phone networks.
“We will not allow the national paralysis over climate change to stop us from pursuing the necessary path for the future,” Cuomo wrote.
Haight praised Cuomo’s piece, but said it could have done more to talk about the need to address the root causes of climate change.
“It would be irresponsible not to look at the causes of climate change,” Haight said.
She said climate change has become a partisan issue and that “we need to change that. Hopefully it will change now.”
A recent study by Resources for the Future found that the U.S. is likely to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 16.3 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, falling just short of the 17 percent target set by President Obama at the 2009 climate change talks in Denmark. The study suggests state and regional carbon emissions-reduction programs, such as the regional initiative, will likely add a 2.5 percent drop by 2020.