New York’s Climate Law Reveals Potential Challenges for Biden’s Plan

Buffalo skyline.

By AMELIA MURRAY-COOPER, from ClimateXChange

Release date: November 17, 2020

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President-Elect Joe Biden announced in July a $2 trillion plan aimed at tackling climate change and promoting environmental justice. The proposal is part of his economic agenda, which he calls his plan to “Build Back Better.”

This was the most ambitious climate plan released by a major party nominee for president, and  became the most ambitious climate policy of any incoming president. Biden’s plan borrows concepts from New York’s climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which was passed last year and is one of the country’s most aggressive climate policies. 

Compared to the last four years under President Trump, Biden’s upcoming agenda will make climate change a greater priority, and Biden will likely embed clean energy measures into other policy areas. Examining New York’s CLCPA gives us great insight as to how Joe Biden’s plan may be implemented come January, as well as what challenges it may face.

Breakdown of New York's Climate Law

Biden’s plan carries the ambition of the CLCPA, which sets broad emission reduction goals. New York’s landmark law puts the state on track to achieve 100% zero-emission electricity by 2040 and reduce emissions at least 85% below 1990 levels by 2050.

The role of determining how to decarbonize the state’s economy falls on a new group called the Climate Action Council. This committee has 22 members that will prepare a scoping plan to achieve the clean energy and climate agenda within the first two years, and will revisit the plan every five years subsequently. The Council will also oversee the creation of sector-specific advisory panels and working groups. This committee will also work in consultation with the Climate Justice Working Group.

The CLCPA also requires New York to invest or direct resources in a manner designed to ensure that disadvantaged communities receive at least 35%, with the goal of 40%, of overall benefits. These benefits are defined as spending on clean energy and energy efficiency programs, or projects and investments in the areas of housing, workforce development, pollution reduction, low-income energy assistance, energy, transportation, and economic development.

Biden looks to New York's emission reduction goals

The “Build Back Better” plan shares similar targets with New York’s climate law. Just like New York’s law, Biden’s plan sets a goal of economy-wide net-zero emissions by no later than 2050. His plan also goes a step further by promising to phase out fossil fuel plants and achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. To accomplish this, he plans to make a $2 trillion accelerated investment, with a plan to deploy those resources over his first term.

This investment will go towards creating millions of jobs focused on rebuilding America’s infrastructure. The plan states that these developments will lay a new foundation for sustainable growth, withstand the impacts of climate change, and improve access to clean air and clean water. The plan also aims to provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options.

Further, the investment will be used to upgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes over four years to improve energy efficiency. Biden’s investment will also spur the construction of 1.5 million sustainable homes and housing units.

New York Renews, a climate advocacy coalition that was integral in the CLCPA’s creation, explained in a press release that Biden’s plan is a clear example of leaders looking towards New York for guidance on climate justice solutions. The press release stated that “Joe Biden’s latest climate plan has the potential to make these standards a requirement for all climate and energy spending in the United States.”

Promoting Environmental Justice on a National Level

While the CLCPA requires that a minimum of 35% of the benefits of climate and energy spending must go to disadvantaged communities, Biden’s campaign sets a firm target — 40% of benefits from the $2 trillion clean electricity investment. Similar to the CLCPA, these benefits are defined as the overall spending on clean energy and energy efficiency deployment, clean transit and transportation, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, and development of clean water infrastructure. 

Biden’s plan would also focus on environmental justice by creating a quantitative Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to identify vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. His plan would also seek to shift major cities toward accessible public transportation, and would create an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Department of Justice. 

This election marks a shift in the Democratic platform towards setting more ambitious climate goals. In the first 2020 Presidential Debate, Biden referenced his climate plan and said, “we’re going to be in a position where we can create hard, good jobs by making sure the environment is clean, and we all are in better shape.”

Setbacks of the CLCPA

While Biden may look towards New York’s plan for inspiration, he should be aware of the challenges it has met throughout its first year and use this experience to guide his own administration.

There has been a delayed strategy to coordinate the groups responsible for implementing the goals outlined in the CLCPA. Two state panels, the Climate Action Council and the Climate Justice Working Group, were tasked with figuring out how to implement and measure progress for the bill. However, the Council has only met three times, and the Working Group has met only once so far. 

Further, while the CLCPA set high goals for New York, some of its initial promises have been adjusted. The original version of the law directed 40% of New York’s clean energy spending to front-line communities, but the final version lowered this goal to 35% and changed the language from “spending” to “benefits,” a less specific metric to track. 

“What the law effectively did is made a squishier target harder to both confirm and hold the government accountable to,” said Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, in an interview with HuffPost.

The COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession also raise concerns about whether New York will further reduce the benefits polluted communities were promised. New York Renews, the coalition of environmental and labor groups that was the force behind the CLCPA, called for an audit of all state agency spending to ensure that front-line communities are receiving 35% of the funding in July. In a press release, New York Renews wrote that they “called on all agencies to complete a public audit and plan for compliance by the end of the year,” but no official response has been issued yet.

This is relevant to Biden’s plan because it is important that he meets his targets and fulfills the promises he makes to the American people, even in the face of a recession. By learning from both the successes and shortcomings of the CLCPA, Biden can better implement his plan on a national level when he enters office in January. 

global goals.

Sustainable Development Goals:

13. Climate Action

16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

17. Partnerships for the Goals