Fine Print: Taking a Harder Look at Greenhouse-Gas Emissions in New Jersey

Tom Johnson | February 7, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Many lawmakers, advocates, and members of the Murphy administration are all for the goals of the Global Warming Response Act, but a new bill may be the key to attaining them

Credit: United Nations Photos
greenhouse gas emissions
The issue: There is not much climate-change denial in New Jersey. Hurricane Sandy and a slew of other extreme storms ended that debate. Most policymakers recognize, as the latest national climate-assessment predicts, the world is warming faster than projected, and we’re running out of time to avoid the worst consequences. How does the nation’s most densely populated state reduce its carbon footprint? More than a decade ago, that goal led New Jersey to set ambitious goals to curb pollution contributing to global warming — targets many advocates argue will be difficult to achieve, especially in light of the Trump administration’s rollback of initiatives to deal with climate change.

What New Jersey has done: The Garden State adopted the Global Warming Response Act, a law that requires it to slash greenhouse-gas emissions to 80 percent below 2006 levels by midcentury. Unfortunately, many of the elements needed to achieve that goal have yet to happen: relying on offshore wind to produce carbon-free electricity along the Jersey coast; participating in a multi-state initiative to clamp down on pollution from power plants; and steering cleaner-running vehicles onto state highways and roads.

Why it is important to New Jersey: As a coastal state, New Jersey is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and sea-level rise. By 2030, sea levels will rise by 10 inches along some sections of the coast, according to some scientific projections. New Jersey ranks second, behind only Florida, in the number of homes and structures most at risk of chronic flooding, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found.

What the state has done so far: Offshore-wind farms along the coast were supposed to be producing carbon-free electricity by 2021, but that is not projected to occur until later in the decade. Still, the Murphy administration is moving aggressively to develop up to 3,500 megawatts of offshore-wind capacity by 2030. The state also may subsidize nuclear power, keeping viable a source of roughly 40 percent of its electricity produced without any greenhouse-gas emissions. The administration also wants at least half of the state’s electricity produced by clean energy by 2030.

How the state is doing: That is the question a bill (S-3207), pending before the Legislature, seeks to answer. Up for a vote today in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, the measure aims to have the state Department of Environmental Protection better track carbon pollution and recommend additional controls to ensure the state achieves the goals of the Global Warming Response Act.

New strategies envisioned under the bill: The legislation would require the DEP to develop a comprehensive strategy to curb emissions of short-lived greenhouse gases, such as methane. A component in natural gas that often leaks from pipelines, methane is much more potent than other greenhouse-gas pollutants, such as carbon dioxide. But the bigger issue for the state may be to regulate carbon dioxide, the most pervasive greenhouse gas pollutant. Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the powerful chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, has urged the state agency to do just that, which would be a broad expansion of its authority.

What about the transportation sector? This remains the biggest source of carbon pollution, accounting for more than 40 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions from a wide range of vehicles — cars, trucks, airplanes, and off-road equipment. The state has lagged in moving to electrify this sector, according to clean-energy advocates, particularly when it comes to promoting electric vehicles. A comprehensive bill to promote them remains stalled in the Legislature.