Carbon cutters look beyond the power sector in 2019

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Cities and states have trumpeted their climate ambitions ever since President Trump took office. Two years later, they have little to show for their efforts except bravado.

That could change in 2019. In recent weeks, city and state leaders have unveiled a bevy of legislative proposals aimed at curbing carbon emissions. The proposals are especially notable because they target sectors like transportation and buildings, which have previously eluded would-be carbon cutters.

In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) is looking to flex enhanced Democratic legislative majorities in Olympia to pass a package of climate bills aimed at cutting emissions from transportation, buildings and the power sector.

Across the country in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker’s (R) administration released a report recommending that the state establish a regional cap-and-trade system for transportation and require all automobile sales be electric by 2040.

And the New York City Council is debating a proposal to slash emissions from the Big Apple’s largest buildings 40 percent by 2040.

“It’s starting,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists and a contributor to Baker’s report on transportation. “Transportation is the biggest source of emissions [nationally], and that’s beginning to be well-recognized.”

Greens said the latest measures reflect the need to push beyond the power sector, which had previously drawn the majority of climate hawks’ attention. Liberal states by and large have retired their coal plants and cut emissions from the sector in recent years. Yet those gains have frequently been offset or overtaken by rising pollution from tailpipes and buildings (Climatewire, April 17).

The new push follows a series of bitter setbacks for climate action advocates, who have previously championed carbon taxes as the chief means of reducing transportation and building emissions.

In Washington last year, a carbon tax failed in both the Legislature and at the ballot box. The Massachusetts Senate unanimously supported plans for a carbon fee, but the provision was ultimately stripped from a wider energy bill signed into law. Carbon tax proposals in other states haven’t even gotten that far.

The proposals unveiled in recent weeks are more likely to succeed politically than the carbon tax measures. It’s easier to rally support for cutting pollution for a specific sector, greens said. And they argue that the plans will be just as effective at cutting emissions.

“We are increasingly look to advance policies that are akin to carbon pricing, in that they are addressing problems economywide,” said Reed Schuler, a climate adviser to Inslee. “We are tackling many sectors and not just the power sector.”

Washington’s carbon emissions increased 11 percent between 1990 and 2015, the most recent year for which state data are available, in large part because of rising transportation emissions and a building boom in the Seattle area. That has raised doubts about Washington’s ability to meet a 2008 state law mandating a 25 percent cut in emissions by 2035.

Inslee’s proposalsare intended to make up the lost ground. One provision calls for a carbon-free power system by 2045. That would deliver a 5.9-million-ton emissions reduction. It also may be the easiest of his proposals to fulfill, given Washington’s abundance of hydropower and the fact that the state’s lone coal plant is already scheduled to shut down in 2025.

The governor’s plan also calls for incentives to retrofit old buildings and enhance efficiency standards for new ones. The requirements are especially important given the rapid growth in and around Seattle, making buildings Washington’s fastest-growing source of emissions.

And then there is a suite of policies aimed at transportation. One would require fuel providers to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuels over time. Another provides a $1,000 sales tax exemption for electric vehicles. Still another proposes adopting California’s ZEV program, which mandates that zero-emitting vehicles account for a rising percentage of auto sales each year.

Together, the legislation package is expected to cut emissions 16 million tons by 2035.

“This is a combination of smart, cost-effective sectoral policies that can be ramped up over time,” Schuler said, adding that he does not see them as “second best” to a carbon tax.


In New York City, the bill that council members are debating would require retrofits for old buildings of 25,000 square feet or more.

Buildings account for 70 percent of New York’s carbon emissions. Supporters say the measure would create jobs weatherizing buildings and swapping out inefficient heating systems, as well as lay down a marker for cities around the world for how to cut building emissions.

“What happens first in New York City historically gets exported to the rest of the country — whether it’s food, music or fashion,” said council member Costa Constantinides. “With the federal government’s resignation to the fight against climate change, it is naturally up to the city of New York to lead that charge.”

The proposal has generated some controversy. Greens and real estate interests are concerned about a loophole for buildings that house rent-controlled apartments, though for different reasons.

Some climate hawks worry that it would exempt roughly a third of the buildings that would otherwise fall under the law. Developers say the rules should be applied across the board.

Their critics point out that eliminating the exemption would enable landlords to pass along the cost of capital upgrades to rent-controlled tenants. There is talk of trying to protect low-income tenants, but that would require a change from state lawmakers in Albany.

Two mayors have tried and failed to establish revamped emissions standards for the world’s most famous skyline. But advocates now believe they finally have enough support to pass more stringent guidelines. The bill has the support of Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“There is a lot of talk that we’re going to achieve the Paris Agreement, but when you point at what’s been done, it’s stuff that produces some reduction here and there,” said Pete Sikora, climate and inequality director at New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit that has championed the bill. “It’s generally not at scale of the climate challenge. That’s why this legislation is so important. It’s an important worldwide marker.”

‘We need specific action’

States and cities have made some progress on climate in recent years. New Jersey and Virginia are poised to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program covering the power sector in nine Northeastern states. RGGI agreed to a more stringent cap in 2017.

In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s (D) call for voluntary carbon reductions has been boosted by the state’s largest power company’s decision to close two large coal units and replace their power with renewables (Climatewire, Sept. 18). The Centennial State is also moving toward adopting California’s fuel economy standard.

And California has forged ahead with its own ambitious climate goals. The state passed a bill calling for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045 this fall (Climatewire, Sept. 12). And on Friday, state regulators approved a new rule requiring public transit agencies to completely electrify their bus fleets by 2040.

While voters rejected Washington’s carbon fee, the midterm elections also boosted climate hawks’ hopes. Democrats’ takeover of the New York State Senate has revived greens’ hopes of finally passing major climate legislation, which has been stymied by Republican lawmakers in recent years.

A new wave of Democratic governors has also pledged action, with plans to boost renewable generation. But for the most part, those governors remain focused on the power sector. While that may produce considerable emissions reductions in Colorado, Illinois and New Mexico — states with significant coal fleets — power-sector efforts increasingly deliver diminishing returns in many blue states.

The dynamic was underlined in an energy planMassachusetts released last week. The report, commissioned by Baker, found that a 50 percent increase in clean electricity would deliver a carbon reduction of 1 million tons by 2030. It recommended that the state pair increased renewable generation and energy efficiency measures with attempts to electrify the transportation and home heating sectors.

Transportation accounts for roughly 40 percent of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 20 percent from the power sector.

A second reportreleased Friday by Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation echoed that point. The study recommends measures to boost walking, biking and public transportation, as well as efforts to increase the build-out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

But two recommendations were perhaps most notable. One advised that the commonwealth mandate that all new automobile sales be electric by 2040. Another suggested that the state join a regional cap-and-trade system for transportation modeled after RGGI, the power-sector program.

“The commission’s report will help inform our administration as we look to future investments in the commonwealth’s transportation system in a changing world and consider various factors such as regional transportation needs and inevitable advances in technology,” Baker said in a statement.

The recommendation of a cap-and-trade program builds on comments Baker made in his re-election campaign and provides a major boost to climate action proponents, who have for years unsuccessfully argued for such a system to address transportation emissions. They contend that a regional program provides greater economic efficiencies while creating a revenue stream that can be used for investments in pollution reduction programs.

State Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Democrat and leading Bay State climate hawk, welcomed the governor’s remarks and the report’s findings, but said he was eager to hear how Baker intends to implement the recommendations.

“Everyone is in agreement with the broad goals, but aspirational goals don’t achieve much,” he said. “We need specific action that generates measurable progress.”

Massachusetts climate action advocates roundly seconded that point. The state, they noted, has already passed strong climate legislation that should enable the governor to act on his own.

Kimmell, the Union of Concerned Scientists president, said he was optimistic that Baker is serious about moving ahead with a program for the transportation sector. He pointed to the makeup of the transportation commission, which was headed by former Baker chief of staff Steven Kadish and composed of environmentalists and industry representatives.

“My impression is the governor personally created this commission, put his ex-chief of staff in charge and was updated on its progress along the way,” Kimmell said. “I think he very much intends to move forward, and this won’t be another report that gathers dust on the shelf.”