New Jersey needs to step up efforts to drive down greenhouse gas emissions, including weighing whether to incorporate the social costs of carbon into an array of government decisions, lawmakers were told yesterday.
With a heightened sense of urgency that had been lacking at previous legislative hearings on climate change, Murphy administration officials and climate experts discussed pending actions to reduce global warming and, perhaps more importantly, what needs to be addressed in the future.
Plenty, the scientists suggested during a rare joint hearing of the Legislature’s two environmental committees. “We need to get the emissions down quickly,’’ said Robert Kopp, a professor at Rutgers University and associate director at the Rutgers Energy Institute, who argued the state should bring carbon emissions down to zero.
Other climate experts from NYU’s Institute of Policy Integrity urged legislators to consider using the social cost of carbon — a tool to put a dollar value on the harm caused by carbon emissions — in government decision-making.
Indeed, some argued yesterday New Jersey already has moved in that direction with the state Board of Public Utilities voting a week ago to award $300 million in ratepayer subsidies to keep three nuclear plants in South Jersey open. The plants provide 90 percent of the state’s carbon-free electricity.
Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, told BPU president Joseph Fiordaliso he believes the agency made the right decision. “If we don’t keep that 35 percent fossil-fuel-free energy, there’s no chance we are ever going to get where we want to get,’’ Smith (D-Middlesex) said.
Kopp said the state should begin mainstreaming climate-change impacts into its decision-making, suggesting a generally accepted price of $51 per ton of carbon. “It is certainly adequate to begin incorporating it into decision-making in New Jersey,’’ he told the committees.
For Smith, the top two priorities are getting the state out of the fossil-fuel business and moving the transportation sector toward electrification.
“Those are the two things screaming at us at this point,’’ he said. In a later interview, Smith added the state needs to take a look at the social cost of carbon, too.
Kopp emphasized the urgency of acting now. “In order to stabilize global climate, human emissions of carbon dioxide must be brought to as close to zero as possible,’’ he said. “The faster we reduce emissions, the less severe the impacts and the lower the risk of unwelcome surprises.’’
Those events include more intense storms, heat waves, and the possibility that $36 billion worth of real estate in New Jersey could be under water because of sea-level rise, according to the scientists.
A recent report by Rutgers students suggested the social cost of carbon could be incorporated into regulatory and other decisions by the BPU, environmental impact statements, and procurement and capital investments, according to Kopp.
Nine other states are already using the social cost of carbon in electric proceedings, according to Denise Grab, western regional director for NYU’s Institute of Policy Integrity. They include California, Illinois, New York, Minnesota and Nevada, she said.
Some environmentalists called the hearing a wakeup call to move more aggressively on climate change initiatives, such as electrifying the transportation sector.
“It is one thing for activists to call for action,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “It is another thing for climate scientists to lay out in stark terms the climate impacts over the next three decades. Climate change is the ultimate pay-now-or-pay-more-later scenario. We’ll be hurting a ton in the future if we don’t act now.’’
Jeanne Herb, executive director of environmental analysis and communications group at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning, noted New Jersey has a long way to go to achieve the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 2006 levels by 2050. “To achieve the state’s 2050 limit, we need to reduce emissions by 75 percent below today’s levels,’’ she told the committee.
There are a lot of questions the state needs to answer in moving toward achieving that goal. High on the list, the state still does not have a statewide climate change vulnerability assessment to identify people, places, communities and natural resources most at risk right now.
While the state has initiated a lot of steps to move forward on a clean-energy agenda, Herb said the state does not know how far it is from reaching the 2050 limit. “Knowing how far we are from the 2050 limit is critical to informing policy now,’’ she said.
Others were more skeptical. “The $20,000 question is the Legislature has heard the warning. What action will they take?’’ asked David Pringle, a consultant for New Jersey’s branch of Clean Water Action.