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Editorial: Toward a green New York

It is ambitious, and it might not be doable. But depending on the details and implementation, legislation aimed at curbing greenhouse gases produced in New York is a winner. It may turn out to be the most significant bill passed in the recently completed session of the State Legislature.

The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, passed by the State Legislature last month, is one of the world’s most ambitious climate plans. It requires that 70% of electricity used in the state come from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydro by 2030 – and 100% by 2040. It also sets the goal of eliminating 85% of greenhouse gas emissions (from a baseline of 1990 levels) from the state’s economy within 30 years.

Reaching those goals would create a “net-zero economy” in the state, which, experts believe, would slow the pace of global warming.

It will take more than New York to beat climate change, but the law is nonetheless significant. New York joins four other states – most notably California – that have enacted zero-carbon policies. If New York were a country, it would be the world’s 11th largest economy. What we do in New York makes a difference.

An engine for growth

What has received less attention: The law is also a terrific economic development program.

Climate-change deniers are a bit like the flat-Earth crowd of Christopher Columbus’ day. There is a broad scientific consensus that human activity is the main cause of our warming climate. The Trump administration’s own 2018 report confirmed it.

But even for those who can’t bring themselves to accept the scientific consensus, it would be folly to miss out on what promises to be one of the great growth industries of the 21st century.

The transition from carbon-based energy creates exciting business opportunities. Which entrepreneurs and companies will invent and commercialize the technologies that drive the transition? Who will build the solar panels and batteries and high-efficiency, low-energy everything? Which universities and community colleges will quickly retool their programs to train the engineers and scientists and managers and high-tech factory workers needed to master the transition?

The winners will be the individuals, businesses and institutions that see opportunity where others cringe at change.

There will be losers

The law essentially ordains that companies producing carbon-based energy must either reinvent themselves or wither. Elsewhere, the reinvention has already started. Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis-based utility holding company, says it has cut its carbon emissions by 38% and aims to generate “100% carbon-free electricity by 2050.” That’s a forward-looking, business-smart policy.

The story of American progress is the repeated rise of new and better solutions eclipsing the old. Electric lights replaced kerosene. Cars sidelined horses. The telephone made telegrams a novelty. Personal computers replaced punch cards. (Ask anyone under the age of 55 if they ever used punch cards.)

The state’s job in this will be to help people caught in the transition – workers at a coal-fired plant or at a business that makes carburetors – acquire the skills to get new jobs in growing workplaces. That’s exciting and it’s important, given the likelihood that those old-economy jobs will decline as new technologies take root.

There will be costs

Most of the time, new technologies eventually cost less than the old – but it is the “eventually” that makes people nervous. Until mass production and cost-saving ingenuity bring down prices, energy-efficient cars may cost more. Landlords may pass along the cost of making buildings more energy-efficient. Homeowners may have to install different heating systems.

Business groups are appropriately worried about the burden. Whatever the cost of changing the way a home is heated or powered, it pales compared with the cost of changing a large business. It will drive businesses from the state, some argue.

The law creates a 22-person “climate action council” to wrestle with such issues. The details are vital. New York has much to figure out.

There are unknowns

The law leaves a great deal to the climate council. State Sen. Liz Kreuger, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, put it this way: “This bill isn’t saying exactly what we’re going to do between now and 2050. This bill is saying we better damn well start.”

That gives an unelected panel of state officials great sway over a large share of the state economy. It is also sure to swell the wallets of Albany lobbyists.

Critics are unhappy, and their concerns deserve attention. As always with government, there is a risk of gamesmanship, self-interest and poor decision-making. Just as the good intentions of Buffalo’s RiverBend project were marred by bid-rigging, this much larger effort could be diverted in ways that line the pockets of special interests.

But pursued thoughtfully, this law could point the state and maybe the world in a healthier, more sustainable direction. And it promises to put New York in the forefront of the great gold rush of the next 30 years.

The costs and uncertainties are real. The payoff is big. It is up to New York to make this a winner.

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