With a stroke of the pen this past July, Gov. Andrew Cuomo set the path for New York to be a renewable energy leader by signing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCP) into law.
The CLCP, also known as the Climate Law, calls for 85 percent greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction by 2050 and offsetting of the remaining 15 percent. This intends to move New York state into a “net zero” carbon economy. What does this mean? In short, the state – including all of us living working, learning, manufacturing, and traveling here – must cease to burn fossil fuels by that deadline. No coal. No oil. No gas.
This is a rigorous and challenging goal that can be reached by changes to the state’s current energy system, which is already a very clean electricity grid, along with individual engagement and informed decision-making.
How might that impact everyday New Yorkers? I’ve tried to answer that – at least in part – using my own 1922-era home in a small city, with 1,160 square feet of living space, an unconditioned basement and some storage room in the attic, as a test case.
By 2050 we need:
1) Better buildings.
• A complete air barrier and fully and well insulated walls and floors. This is a challenge in older buildings like mine, but can be done.
• New windows that perform almost as well as walls, preferably casement or awning so they latch tightly, and a family trained to shut and latch them when cooling or heating is on!
2) Better energy.
• Every house, business, church, school, hospital…must run entirely on renewable energy. This requires a community approach.
• Completely renewable heat-energy (solar thermal or geo-exchange) moved by heat pumps. Remember, no coal, oil, or gas! At my house, we currently heat with wood from a managed forest.
• Electric on-demand hot water and a family committed to short showers. Every bit of energy waste must be captured by drainpipe heat recovery systems. At my house, we have a natural-gas fired on-demand water heater, which does reduce our energy use, yet it is still fossil fuel.
• An electric stovetop in every home and restaurant. This is a hard change, but gas stoves emit extremely toxic gasses when used.
• All organic LED lighting, and a home focused on high quality task lighting and detailed, user-activated controls to reduce waste. My house is outfitted with all LEDs, and we enjoy playing with colors and intensity. We use SmartThings, a cloud-based management system, to control our lights, locks, heat, and cameras.
3) Better water management.
• To reduce energy to move and clean water we must have low flow everything, and we use rainwater and greywater for the garden, flushing, and washing the car. We do most of this at our home.
• Elimination of single-use bottled waters. We fully invest in tap and drink tap.
4) Better travel.
• Less dependence on cars and better car-sharing in communities and in families. Electric vehicles will function as emergency battery back-up for homes. (We have one car – a plug-in EV).
• Public transportation must transition to electric light rail and we need multi-modal streets connecting communities and cities. We live locally, meaning most of our transportation can be done by foot, bike, skateboard, or public transit.
5) Better yards.
• No lawns. Use public spaces for picnics and play, and let our yards be natural and diverse; Perennial plants, composting, no mowing, and no pesticides decrease GHG emissions. (At my house, we have only perennial gardens).
• Communities must maximize composting. This reduces garbage to landfills, which reduces methane and fuel used for transportation. It maintains healthy soil and aquifers. We compost fruit, vegetables, and lawn waste.
• Driveways, sidewalks, and parking lots need to be porous to manage rainwater. Fewer piped systems means more water stays in our local aquifer, resulting in less power used to pump and treat water. We have an electric snow thrower and a driveway of pervious asphalt.
6) Better shopping.
• More locally farmed foods. Eating seasonally reduces chemicals and energy used in modern agriculture. In full disclosure: Our family needs to work on this one.
• Diverse local stores, focusing on durable, craft-made, natural materials, repair, and re-use. This reduces waste and shipping as well as overproduction.
7) Basically…better everything.
• These GHG emissions reductions can only occur if we address everything: education, health, equity, retirement, entertainment…
We have a lot of re-jiggering to do over the next 20 years and it will require more than building ZNE buildings and using electric cars. We need community networks, a closed-cycle approach to waste reduction, and a deep respect for nature’s complex systems. Our climate leadership goals are necessary to mitigate debilitating climate change and to adapt well to what will come, with decision and planning rather than with panic and a disaster response.
This is our opportunity, truly. As we embrace these goals now, and make decisions as we go that keep us on the path to achievement, we will not just “get there”. We will encounter business opportunities, new knowledge, and community-building that has been sorely absent for decades. Here’s to our new future.