New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, right, joined by former Vice President Al Gore, signs the historic, environmentally comprehensive Climate Leadership and Communities Protection Act on July 18 in New York City.

Howarth advised on methane portions of NY’s new climate law

Cornell professor Bob Howarth played a key role – reckoning methane as a carbon dioxide equivalent – in New York state’s historic, environmentally comprehensive Climate Leadership and Communities Protection Act (CLCPA), which Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law July 18.

Cornell impacting New York State

“It’s the most progressive legislation designed to avert climate change that any state has put out there,” said Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology.

The New York State Senate and the Assembly passed the bill in June.

“New York has done what no other state has done, and that is to account properly for methane as a major atmospheric greenhouse gas contributor,” Howarth said. “It’s all in the way you figure methane into the global warming equation. That’s a significant part of this new law and this puts New York in a leadership role.”

The new Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act was sponsored by Long Island Assemblyman Steve Englebright, D-4th Dist., and co-sponsored by Ithaca Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-125th Dist.

“I see the CLCPA as critical in providing the structure our state needs to move much more swiftly on the path to net zero emissions, so as to help mitigate the worst impacts of climate change,” Lifton said in a statement on her website.

The law will require New York to:

  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85% by 2050;
  • make 70% of the state’s electricity generation produced by renewable energy systems by 2030; and
  • require statewide electricity generation systems to produce zero carbon emissions by 2040.

The law is designed to procure at least 9 gigawatts of offshore wind electric generation by 2035, 6 gigawatts of photovoltaic solar generation by 2025 and 3 gigawatts of statewide energy storage capacity by 2030. The law also is expected to save 185 trillion British Thermal Units, or BTUs – below the state’s 2025 energy-use forecast.

Howarth, a faculty fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, worked extensively with Englebright, a paleontologist by training, and Lifton to develop this law.

Importantly, Howarth said, for the first time a state legislature has defined a “carbon dioxide equivalent” – for which methane now qualifies. That legal definition is the amount of another greenhouse gas by mass that produces the same global-warming impact as the given mass of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. Simply put, methane can now be compared to carbon dioxide, at a time scale appropriate for addressing the urgency of climate change.

Howarth said that the 20-year time frame is vital because methane – while significantly more powerful than carbon dioxide – begins to dissipate after a decade. “Classically, what governments have done is to compare carbon dioxide and methane at a 100-year time period,” he said. “By that time, the methane is gone. But that underplays the [shorter-term] importance of methane by 7- or 8- or 9-fold.”

This new law formally endorses the idea of measuring methane in a 20-year time period. “It makes methane more important,” said Howarth.

Also, the new state law accounts for greenhouse gases produced outside of New York for the energy used within New York. “The new law says that when we use natural gas in New York, and if that natural gas came from Pennsylvania, then we have to take into account the methane emissions from Pennsylvania,” he said.

Most natural gas consumed in New York is fracked shale gas from Pennsylvania, and much of the unburned methane from that gas is emitted in Pennsylvania at well sites and compressor stations, long before the natural gas reaches the New York border. But by the time the natural gas gets to New York, its greenhouse gas emissions are undercounted and may seem small, said Howarth.

“Under the old accounting in New York, methane seemed trivial,” he said. “Under this new law, the new accounting means that methane is now larger than carbon dioxide – about 1.3 times larger than carbon dioxide for consumption of natural gas. That’s pretty powerful when you add it up.”

One of the early blueprints for this legislation appeared in the journal Energy Policy in 2013, in an article, “Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water and Sunlight.” It was authored by Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University; Howarth; and Anthony Ingraffea, the Dwight C. Baum Professor in Engineering Emeritus. It called for a comprehensive look at how to turn New York green.

David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology, said the new law will draw renewable energy businesses to the state.

“The New York state climate change initiative is arguably the boldest and most ambitious and comprehensive in the nation,” Wolfe said. “[It] will be a magnet for attracting renewable energy businesses to New York and create new job opportunities.”

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