NJ meets first goal in reducing carbon emissions, but still has ‘incredible hill to climb’

DEP lays out aggressive strategy to overcome state’s dependence on fossil fuels by mid-century
Credit: (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
File photo

New Jersey has achieved its first milestone in reducing global warming pollution, but attaining a target of curbing 80% of carbon emissions by 2050 will be much more difficult, according to a top state official.

The state hit its 2020 goal of reducing emissions from power plants by 20%, but that was helped by the transition of coal plants being replaced by cleaner natural gas units.

“Between 2020 and 2050, we have an incredible hill to climb,’’ acknowledged Shawn LaTourette, acting commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, speaking at a virtual conference sponsored by the New Jersey Climate Change Alliance.

LaTourette laid out the administration’s comprehensive plan to achieve that goal, a plan that envisions transitioning New Jersey to 100% clean energy by mid-century.

But New Jersey now is largely dependent on fossil fuels to power its economy, run its transportation sector, and heat its residential and commercial buildings.

To aggressively transform the state, the Murphy administration plan hinges on electrifying the transportation sector, quickly transitioning to renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, and somehow converting most of the large percentage of homes and businesses for heating.

If any of those efforts are compromised, LaTourette conceded that those goals may not be realized.

Murphy: ‘No denying’ the difficulties

Gov. Phil Murphy, who appeared in a short video to open the conference on Friday, did not minimize the challenges facing the state after recounting the steps he has initiated to move to a clean-energy economy.

“There’s no denying that we’re in a difficult place right now, but I am optimistic about our future. The choices we are making today will create opportunity, prosperity, and health to every generation to come,’’ Murphy said.

Both he and the acting commissioner conceded climate change is already occurring in New Jersey, and its impacts are being felt and will continue to occur as global warming is already baked into the environment for the future. 

In response, the administration has developed a two-pronged approach to dealing with climate change. The first part is to identify mitigation strategies to reduce new carbon pollution by reducing new global warming emissions, and the second part is  to find ways to adapt to the changes already occurring.

The initial priority will focus on what LaTourette described as the largest regulatory effort the DEP has undertaken in the last decade to modernize its rules governing pollution. In the short term, they include new and tougher rules to clamp down on pollutants from power plants, smaller commercial and industrial boilers, and efforts to transition medium- and heavy-duty trucks to electric vehicles.

‘Performing CPR on our environmental regulations’

The DEP dubbed the rules the Climate Pollution Reduction (CPR). “We’re performing CPR on our environmental regulations in order to bring them into the future,’’ he said.

In addition, another priority will focus on amending the state’s rules governing what projects require permits from a wide range of land use programs, including flood hazard areas, coastal regulation, freshwater wetlands, and stormwater.

LaTourette said the rules are designed to make sure developers and the public understand the new realities of climate change — higher levels of sea rise and more sunny-day flooding — and make sure structures can withstand what is to come.

Some conference participants asked just how far the department will go to protect coastal areas, including whether it will continue to fund beach replenishment programs that one questioner described as “expensive Band-Aids.”

“We love our coastline,’’ LaTourette said. “I don’t see us stepping back from replenishment of our beaches.’’

He also was asked about possible moratoriums on new fossil fuel infrastructure — a primary concern of many environmental groups. “We need to be deeply realistic,’’ he said. “A moratorium on any fossil fuel infrastructure isn’t especially sensible when there is reliance on it and will remain so in the future,’’ he said.

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