Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden had announced last week a new climate justice plan that would direct nearly half the benefits of its proposed $2 trillion clean electricity investment to poor and minority communities that have borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution.
The former vice president got the concept from the climate law New York passed last summer, which sets the Empire State on a path to 100% carbon-free power by 2045. Joe Biden’s plan didn’t end there as it promises to phase out natural gas, coal, and oil-fired power plants by 2035.
New York’s law mandates that a minimum of 35% of benefits go to front-line communities, with the goal of 40%. Joe Biden’s campaign set a firm target of 40%.
We all agreed that the plan is “noble” and good enough to win popular support for the energy transition and addressing environmental racism. Although, the problem is that New York’s law isn’t yet working out as envisaged and it raises concerns about how the effort would scale nationally following Joe Biden’s plan.
The first version of New York’s law directed 40% of New York’s clean energy “spending” an easy metric to track to front-line communities. But the later version didn’t support that as it lowered the guaranteed figure to “no less than 35%” and changed that language from “spending” to “benefits.”
That is a much less specific goal and one that two-state panels have been tasked with figuring out how to implement and measure. One of those panels was just established last month and has yet to meet. The other hasn’t even been formed.
However, the state lacks a proper plan to coordinate different agencies around the mandate at a moment when the coronavirus is taking a disproportionate toll on the communities the provision is targeting to assist. There are concerns that the budget gap the state faces as a result of the pandemic could reduce the benefits polluted communities are due to have.
New York reportedly Renews, the coalition of 200 environmental and labor groups that spearheaded the legislation, called for an audit of all state agency spending to ensure that front-line communities are receiving 35% of climate-related funding. On Tuesday evening, climate activists protested at Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office to raise awareness of how the ongoing heatwave is putting poor New Yorkers at risk.
“This is not a joke,” said Raya Salter, a policy organizer for New York Renews and a member of the Climate Action Council, the state panel the law created to oversee its implementation. “The costs of delaying are not acceptable.”
The governor’s office did not respond to emailed questions.
The 22-member council is made up of advocates, utility chiefs and state agency officials, and has met just once, in early March, at a gathering the Albany Times Union described as “uneventful.”
It’s that body that is ultimately responsible for devising how to calculate the benefits communities receive. Its environmental justice working group, which will discuss and recommend a system of accounting, only officially formed last month.
“They’re in the process of scheduling their meeting,” said Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “It’s Doodle poll Hell.”
The absence of a clearly defined mechanism to account for the benefits the law provides New Yorkers makes the working group that much more urgent, he said.
“What the law effectively did is made a squishier target harder to both confirm and hold the government accountable to,” he said.
Cuomo has yet to appoint names to a separate environmental justice advisory board with a broader, statewide mandate. That panel, formed under a companion piece of legislation, failed to even start planning last year because Cuomo waited until December to sign the bill, despite making no changes to the version the legislature passed in June, Bautista said.