The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) has a legal mandate for New York State greenhouse gas emissions to meet the ambitious net-zero goal by 2050. I recently read a Niagara Gazette commentary by Jim Shultz titled: Is New York state coming after our furnaces?. While I agreed with much of what he wrote I did send him an email explaining my concerns with certain aspects of his commentary. I reproduce it below and include my comments after it.
Everyone wants to do right by the environment to the extent that they can afford to and not be unduly burdened by the effects of environmental policies. I have written extensively on implementation of New York’s response to climate change because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that it will adversely affect reliability, impact affordability, risk safety, affect lifestyles, and will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change in New York. New York’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions are less than one half one percent of global emissions and since 1990 global GHG emissions have increased by more than one half a percent per year. Moreover, the reductions cannot measurably affect global warming when implemented. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
I received a post card the other day from state senator Robert Ortt warning me, in the midst of a cold winter, that I might be made even colder in years to come under a new state action plan on climate change. The card warned that starting in 2030 we would no longer be able to get new gas furnaces, stoves, or clothes dryers, and that gasoline-powered cars would no longer be for sale in New York starting in 2035. The senator wrote, “Well intended as it might be, this Plan could mean even higher energy and consumer costs for you.”
The plan Mr. Ortt is referring to comes with a classically bureaucratic name: The New York State Climate Action Council Draft Scoping Plan. I skimmed through its pages over the weekend, all 331 of them. The plan is a true masterpiece in how to hide what is important under an avalanche of words designed to make people never want to read it. Here’s an example: “Regardless, any transition must be carefully planned, detailed, and clearly communicated to ensure that expectations are aligned across stakeholders.”
What does that even mean?
Most of those 331 pages are dedicated to telling us why the state needs to move swiftly away from the fossil fuels that cause climate change, a premise that I agree with. Far fewer pages actually say what specific actions the plan would recommend to state lawmakers. You couldn’t make it less accessible to average citizens if you tried. Finding the specific policies that Ortt is referring to was no easy task.
On gas furnaces, the report says (on page 129): “2030: Adopt zero emission standards that prohibit gas/oil replacements (at end of useful life) of heating and cooling and hot water equipment for single-family homes and low-rise residential buildings with up to 49 housing units.”
What does this mean (and not mean) in concrete terms?
It does not mean that in January 2030 you will no longer be able to use a gas furnace in your home or that you will be required to buy a new electric one when the gas unit you have works just fine. What it does mean is that after 2030, when your gas furnace does need to be replaced (this could be in 2040 or later if your furnace is relatively new), you will need to make the transition to an electric one. The plan includes financial incentives to help pay for the change.
State environmental planners warn that because gas is a major contributor to climate change it is going to get phased out eventually. It is a waste, they say, for New York to keep sinking more money into the gas infrastructure that would be needed to keep servicing gas appliances 20 or 30 years down the road. It would be like investing in Blockbuster Video after the entire world migrated to Netflix. Ortt got the phase-out target date for new gas clothes dryers and stoves wrong by five years. It’s actually 2035.
On the matter of gasoline automobile sales, the plan takes a very deep dive into bureaucratic gobbledygook to get to the answer to that (on page 103). The New York plan is essentially: Adopt California’s new plan to transition to zero emission cars. But when you look at the actual California plan that New York would copy, it does not say: It will be illegal to buy a gasoline-automobile from 2035 onward. What it says is: “It shall be a goal of the State that 100 percent of in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks will be zero-emission by 2035.”
To be clear, a goal and a prohibition on the sale of gasoline cars are not the same thing. I might have a goal to lose five pounds by summer, but if I come up short that doesn’t mean I stop eating. We ought to have ambitious goals that would let us drive to our jobs without making climate change an even worse crisis for our children to deal with. But the transition is big and it is complicated, so the path has to be practical as well.
If you are part of that small minority in the United States that doesn’t believe climate change is real (or don’t care about it because you expect to be dead by the time things get really bad) then none of this make any sense. But if you do believe in the science of climate change and do worry about the future we are handing our children, then making the transition away from fossil fuels is really important, but also not a simple thing.
It’s easy to toss out one-line warnings on a post card and make people feel like state bureaucrats are coming for our furnaces. It is harder to bring forward the facts in a more complete way, free of all the bureaucratic jargon. What we need to do, as citizens, is look closer at what is actually being proposed, call out what doesn’t make sense for our communities, and offer up smarter alternatives. This is the homework of democracy.
If Senator Ortt is sincere in his desire to help us make our voices heard, a more effective thing to do would be to bring some of the state officials who helped put the plan together here to Lockport, to present that plan to the community — in plain language. These issues are important. They should not be buried under indecipherable gibberish or just turned into political fodder. What we need from our state leaders is real information, and an informed and thoughtful discussion about the way forward.
Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am writing in response to your commentary in the Niagara Gazette titled “Is New York State coming after our furnaces?”. I wanted to point out that I agree with Ortt’s conclusion: “Well intended as it might be, this Plan could mean even higher energy and consumer costs for you.”
I have been studying the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) since April 2019 and written over 185 posts on topics related to the Act and implementation of the Act at my blog Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York. I believe that it is very likely that implementation of the technology necessary to meet the targets of the Act will adversely affect energy sector affordability and risk current reliability standards. Unfortunately, most New Yorkers are unaware of it and only a handful understand the implications. Many of the articles I have published are overly technical for the general public. In order to address the need for a concise resource of the potential impacts of the Climate Act for laypeople I have developed the Citizens Guide to the Climate Act.
Given that you only skimmed the Draft Scoping Plan you did a good job summarizing the furnaces and vehicle mandates. However, your comment that “The plan is a true masterpiece in how to hide what is important under an avalanche of words designed to make people never want to read it” massively underestimates the degree to which the Scoping Plan hides some critical information. My concern is that the problem and the solution have both been over-simplified. Every issue I have looked at it gets more complicated as you dig into it. I prepared an overview of the Scoping Plan as it relates to affordability and reliability that addresses some of the nuances that are not immediately obvious relative to the points you made.
I agree with your characterization that “after 2030, when your gas furnace does need to be replaced (this could be in 2040 or later if your furnace is relatively new), you will need to make the transition to an electric one”. However, the heating transition to electric will include an upgrade to building codes for building shells. There is a table showing heating retrofit costs in the overview post that shows that adds costs of between $6,409 and $45,136. I believe that when you try to sell your home it has to be up to code so wouldn’t you be required to retrofit your furnace and upgrade the shell before you can sell?
The Scoping Plan does not even attempt to claim that the electrification retrofit will save money. All the benefits listed are societal benefits that cannot be used to offset consumer costs. You explain that you worry about the impacts of climate change. The avoided GHG emission impacts on climate change societal benefit attempts to quantify the impacts of our emissions on climate change. The overview post shows that the Scoping Plan cheats to maximize that benefit by counting benefits multiple times. When that error is corrected the costs are greater than the benefits. It does not make sense to me to implement these measures if they aren’t cost-effective. It makes more sense to invest in R&D to come up with cheaper, more reliable zero-emissions alternative technology. Until that technology is available it is unlikely that the developing countries will forgo the advantages of electrification.
With respect to automobile electrification, don’t forget the hidden costs to set up the infrastructure for charging. It is bad enough to install something at home but who is going to pay for the chargers for those who park on the street or in parking lots.
While I understand that you want to do something about climate change, the only conclusion that I can draw from my evaluation of the Climate Act is that it will cause more harm than good. Please take a look at my Citizens Guide and let me know if you have any questions.
Response from Shultz
Thank you for your detailed note. The point of my brief article was that these issues, as you note, are complex, and I think citizens are poorly served by quick politician proclamations on the one hand and hundreds of pages of bureaucratic babble on the other. I will pass along your note and links to others who are looking at this more deeply than I am. I would certainly encourage you to be in touch with reporters covering the issue in Albany.