In the Northeast, a Model for Climate Change Action

Brookhaven National Laboratory solar panels

The historic Paris climate accord to cut greenhouse gas emissions should give us both hope and pause. Hope, because after two decades of concerted effort, 195 countries came together to take significant steps to address climate change. And pause, because after all that effort, the accord doesn’t go far enough to address the root causes of climate change and the related risks our planet faces. While global agreements often feel removed from our everyday lives, this deal has reverberations for the New York metropolitan region.

In order for our region to carry out the goals of the accord, we must significantly reduce our emissions. Yes, the region must invest with greater conviction in transit, building efficiency, vehicle efficiency, and alternative energy, but we also need to create and expand collaborative efforts to address climate change.

A collaborative effort already exists in our region. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative caps total emissions by major power plants in nine states in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, including  New York and Connecticut, and allows companies to buy and sell pollution rights from one another. Over the past seven years, the program has raised more than $2.3 billion through the auction of pollution allowances, with around $900 million going to New York State alone. These funds are then invested into energy efficiency and alternative energy projects. 

By capping emissions from power plants at a set limit (approximately 90 million short tons as of 2015), RGGI creates incentives to fundamentally change the region’s power generation. In fact, since 2005, carbon emissions for power plants in the RGGI network fell 40%. But RGGI would be stronger with the participation of New Jersey, which dropped out of the initiative in 2011, and if Pennsylvania and Québec, which currently have observer status, became full members. 

While Paris didn’t succeed in putting a price on carbon, a step many consider essential for significant reductions, the RGGI cap-and-trade framework offers a template for future national and international markets for emissions trading. Getting there will require expansion of membership, greater coordination with other markets and encompassing other major sources of emissions including smaller power plants and residential and industrial buildings.

Other programs go even further. New York State’s Reforming the Energy Vision plan includes goals on resilience, affordability, energy efficiency and job creation. One of REV’s key initiatives offers incentives for distributed energy resources, which aim to decentralize power generation. The distributed energy initiative, along with $1 billion investment to expand the state’s solar capacity by 3,000 megawatts, has the capacity to reshape the electrical power industry. The state’s framework for supporting distributed energy already is shaking up the industry nationally.  

Additionally, the state-sponsored NY Green Bank and the Connecticut Green Bank have recently joined forces with international counterparts to create a global green bank network to accelerate investment in climate adaptation and clean energy. (New Jersey’s Energy Resilience Bank is currently absent from this coalition.)

Despite progress being made to reduce emissions in our region, we also should acknowledge that substantial climate impacts, including more extreme temperatures, sea-level rise, increased precipitation and storm surge, pose significant risks to our population. Our coastlines need to be reimagined with a long-term vision. Development fundamentally needs to change – and, in some cases, cease. Some areas will require greater engineered defenses to fend off floodwaters and rising seas, while others will simply need to return to nature over time.   

The Paris accord was a strong step forward toward tackling the global problem of climate change, though future agreements will need even more ambitious goals. The New York metropolitan region can serve as a model for how to address climate mitigation and adaptation in the post-Paris era.