Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
New York State is looking ready to pass one of most aggressive bills aimed at fighting climate change in the country.
State Democrats have introduced a version of the Climate and Community Protection Act every year for the last three years — without Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s support. But the governor has finally come around. Cuomo, who was previously pushing his own, less aggressive climate plan, announced Monday that he’s ready to support the bill.
The landmark legislation is as close to a Green New Deal — the national proposal to address climate change being pushed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — as any existing state policy. Many of the Green New Deal’s priorities, like the creation of green jobs and aggressive cuts to carbon emissions, are featured in the bill, which is expected to pass later this week.
“I believe we have an agreement,” Cuomo said on Albany’s WAMC radio station on Monday. “I believe it's going to pass.”
"This is going to be the most ambitious climate bill in the country."
The bill sets an ambitious target for greenhouse gas emissions in New York: Under the current version, New York will have to reduce its emissions by 85% by 2050 from 1990 levels. The remaining 15% of emissions will have to be offset or captured. That’s a concession from the original version of the bill, which called for the elimination of all carbon emissions. The slightly less ambitious version of the bill is meant to leave some leeway for difficult-to-decarbonize industries, like cement mixing, jet fuel, and steel fabrication, according to a source close to the negotiations. They’ll be allowed to offset or capture their emissions, rather than eliminating them entirely.
“It feels like we have begun the most important mission of our generation,” said Assembly member Steve Engelbright, a lead sponsor of the bill and a Democrat representing Assembly District 4 on Long Island. “We’re going to empower the people of these communities and engage them in the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That will lead the way for success across the entire state.”
The plan that Cuomo had pushed called for aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector but ignored the state’s transportation sector, the largest source of carbon emissions in the state. But activists weren’t pleased with the governor’s version, and some legislators thought it didn’t go far enough.
“I’m really grateful that we rejected to climate proposal that was in the executive’s [Cuomo’s] budget,” said State Senator Julia Salazar, a Democrat who represents District 18 of Brooklyn and Queens. “I really feel that would’ve just kicked the can further down the road and delayed addressing what is truly a climate emergency.”
The Climate and Community Protection Act is only the latest victory for the ascendant left in New York State. After the 2018 midterms, Democrats took control of the state Senate and have had a remarkable legislative session. They’ve passed landmark rent control regulations, protected abortion access in the event that Roe v. Wade gets overturned, and most recently, gave undocumented immigrants access to drivers licenses.
“The most ambitious climate bill in the country”
Under the current version of the bill, 70% of the state’s energy production will have to come from renewable sources by 2030. By 2040, the entire state’s energy production will have to be carbon free. That’s five years earlier than California’s current goal of producing all carbon-free energy by 2045.
California, which has led the country in climate policy so far, has relied on cap-and-trade markets, where polluting companies buy and sell the right to emit carbon. Those markets have been tough to maintain. In New York, the new bill is centered on hard caps and annual reductions of greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors of the economy. There’s no cap-and-trade market.
“This is going to be the most ambitious climate bill in the country,” said Priya Mulgaonkar, a resiliency planner at the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance who helped to draft the bill. “In terms of addressing climate change and racial injustice, we see this as a huge watershed moment but we hope it’s the first of many wins for our coalition.”
The new bill plans to meet those goals by funding renewable energy, green transportation, weatherization, and green jobs specifically in poor communities of color. If signed into law, it would stipulate that no less than 35% of any state spending on clean energy and energy efficiency programs, housing, workforce development, pollution reduction, energy, transportation, and economic development would have to benefit poor communities of color.
A last-minute change to the bill has activists frustrated, though. The text, as of Monday, specified that green investments needed to be made in disadvantaged communities. On Tuesday, a small tweak was made that those investments need not be made in the communities themselves but only benefit them. But those communities also disproportionately have to deal with the effects of climate change and pollution: The EPA found last year that black people are much more likely to be exposed to air pollution.
The governor’s office declined to comment on the change.
The labor stipulations of the bill are notably strong, too: Any green jobs created under the current version of the bill would be required to pay union wages or better. The bill has gained the support of some of the biggest labor unions in New York State. And courting organized labor has become a prioriority for Democrats at the presidential level, which suddenly believe labor to be a constituency worth courting.
“I’m really thrilled to see how much of a priority it was to work with organized labor to ensure that the jobs that are being created are really high quality,” Salazar said.
The bill is just the latest action taken by states to fill the void of climate legislation at the federal level, where the Trump administration has rolled back tons of environmental rules. President Trump is working to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, the only regulation aimed at keeping the U.S. in line with the Paris agreement, which Trump pulled the U.S. out of.
In the wake of that reversal at the federal level, states are becoming the laboratories for climate policy. Michigan created a state office dedicated to fighting climate change. New Mexico passed ambitious climate legislation in March. Hawai’i’s on track to outpace its 2020 carbon reduction goals, and Oregon appears set to pass a new cap-and-trade bill in the next few days.
“We should not be in a position where states have to lead the fight against climate change. It would be far more preferable and effective to have Washington put a nationwide solution into place,” Sen. Todd Kaminsky, the lead sponsor of New York’s bill told VICE News. “But in lieu of that, states now need to step up.”
“New York, having an economy of its size, its changes in carbon reduction and its implementation of green energy solutions will be consequential,” Kaminsky added. “I think this is a nation-leading step and I hope other states follow the example.”
Cover image: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks about the $175.5 billion state budget during a news conference in the Red Room at the state Capitol Sunday, March, 31, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)