No gas-powered cars, no heating oil for homes. Climate report calls for major action

New Jersey will have to make deep cuts in fossil fuel use to meet global-warming target, DEP says
Credit: Adina Voicu from Pixabay
The report called for “steep and permanent” reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions within the “next several years.”

New Jersey has met a short-term goal of trimming carbon emissions but must make radical changes to transportation, electric generation, construction and industry if it is to achieve a much bigger reduction by the middle of the century, the Department of Environmental Protection said Thursday.

In a report on progress toward a legal requirement of cutting emissions by 80% from 2006 levels by 2050, the DEP called for “steep and permanent” reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions within the “next several years.”

Unless the state puts itself on a path to rapidly phase out fossil fuels and adopt renewables on a wide scale, its people will see the increasing effects of climate change including sea-level rise, increases in temperature and precipitation, chronic flooding, bigger storms and longer droughts, the “80×50” report said.

“Minimizing these risks requires immediate, decisive, long-term commitments across all levels of government and sectors of the economy to facilitate the steep reductions of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions that are necessary to protect New Jersey’s economic, social, and environmental vitality,” the 201-page report said.

Regular update on emissions goals

The DEP is required every two years to report on whether the state is on track to meet the emissions goals that were set by the Global Warming Response Act, passed by the Legislature in 2007 and revised in 2019.

Officials calculated that transportation, the biggest source of carbon emissions at 42% of the total, would need to cut them by 87% by 2050 in order to meet the target for overall emissions reduction.

Achieving transportation’s share of the shift would require a massive change in how new cars, SUVs and light-duty trucks are powered, the report said. It calculated that 88% of those vehicles would have to be driven by electricity or hydrogen by 2030, rising to 100% by 2035. For electric vehicles, that would mean expanding their number by 111,000 a year until 2035 from the current rate of only 8,000 a year, the report said.

The report praised a 2019 law to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles by requiring the installation of 200 public fast-charging stations. But the widescale switch to clean-fuel cars and other vehicles will need a “significant increase in subsidies” and disincentives to consume gasoline, it said.

COVID-19 keeps cars off the road

And it said the experience of millions of people working from home rather than commuting to offices during the COVID-19 pandemic “provides an opportunity to realize significant short-term emissions reductions in the transportation sector.”

Residential and commercial sectors account for the second-largest share of emissions, 26%, and the report said they must fall by 89% by 2050 to meet the overall target. That could be achieved in part by phasing out the use of heating oil and propane, which together account for about 10% of New Jersey residences. Legislation or directives from the Board of Public Utilities could be used to achieve a conversion of new building stock, starting at 22% by 2030, rising to 90% by 2050.

Electricity generation, the third-largest emissions source, would have to become fossil-fuel free by 2050 if the state is to meet its goals, the report said. Although most of the state’s emissions reductions since the passage of the law have been the result of the use of natural gas rather than coal in power stations, the longer-term goal is complete decarbonization in the sector, the report said. It projects about half of the state’s power needs by 2050 will come from solar, about a quarter from low-carbon or carbon-neutral fuels and around a sixth of the total from offshore wind.

Cleaning up industry

The industrial sector, though a smaller contributor, is still a significant emitter of carbon, and would need to reduce emissions by 7% by 2050, probably through energy efficiency and the adoption of more renewable fuels, the report said.

New Jersey’s efforts to cut emissions won’t avert the worst effects of climate change unless they are part of national and global cuts, but the state should still pursue the goals even if other states or the federal government are not doing their part, said Shawn LaTourette, deputy commissioner at the DEP.

“Leadership matters,” he said during a conference call with reporters. “By taking these actions and identifying the way to get there we influence that,” he said. “New Jersey is not an island, and we certainly want to reach the emissions reductions and the resilience measures so that New Jersey physically doesn’t become an island.”

He said the barrier islands could be gone by 2150 unless the state takes the steps outlined in the report.

So long, Jersey Shore?

According to a Rutgers University-led report last year, the Jersey Shore will see a foot of sea-level rise by 2030, 2 feet by 2050, and five or more feet by the end of the century as global oceans swell in response to melting ice sheets and rising temperatures. But all efforts to cut carbon emissions are not expected to curb climate change until after 2050; before that, change is baked in, scientists say.

Sen. Bob Smith, chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said New Jersey must press ahead with the reforms even if they are costly, and even if they are not being followed by other states or the federal government. Smith (D-Middlesex) predicted that a Biden administration, unlike the Trump administration, would take climate change seriously, leaving New Jersey well positioned to be a national leader in mitigation and adaptation.

“What you’re trying to do is to set the standard, raise the flag for the other 49 states and, God willing, on Nov. 3, we are going to end up with a new direction at the national level,” Smith said. “And I do think the new administration — please God, let it happen — is going to be much more sensitive to global climate change.”

He said the DEP’s document called for some “rather hard decisions,” such as a proposed constitutional amendment to replace all fossil-fuel-fired power plants with renewables as the plants retire.

“This is part of the disruption in our economy that’s going to result from going renewable, and it’s going to change the way we live,” he said.

The New Jersey Business & Industry Association called the report a “first step” toward setting needed policy on reducing emissions, but said the absence of cost estimates limited its usefulness.

“It’s perfectly OK to do the analysis and say, ‘here’s where we think we need to go,’” said Ray Cantor, the BIA’s vice president of government affairs. “But DEP said there is really no analysis as to what this is going to cost, there is no analysis as to whether our energy system would actually be reliable as a result. It’s a starting point for the detailed conversations but it’s absolutely not how we should move forward.”