State emissions report shows a long, tough road ahead

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

The Bethlehem Energy Center, in Glenmont, released 1.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere according to data from the United States Energy Information Administration and collected by Find Energy.

ALBANY COUNTY — Come 2050, New York State hopes to boast an 85-percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, with decennial benchmarks to guide progress, such as an increase in electricity generation by 2030 and a complete elimination of carbon in electricity generation by 2040 — all part of the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, passed in 2019. 

But while goal-setting at this level is an important aspect of the fight against climate change, the state’s first annual emissions report — called for by the act — shows that those changes may not come easy, since the current state of emissions is a long way from legislators’ ideals. 

At a glance, there are positive indicators:

— Overall emissions have gone down 6 percent since 1990, the first of 29 years captured by the report, and 17 percent since 2005; and

— The decrease is greater when looking at specific sectors, like electricity generation (where it’s down 46 percent since 1990) and industry (down 34 percent). 

However, when tracking net emissions from 1990 through 2019, the downward trend is just barely discernible following an emissions peak in the mid 2000s, and the rate of decrease is modest when juxtaposed with the state’s ambitions.

Plus, while there has been a decrease in emissions in some areas, there’s been an increase in others, and an 11 percent decrease in emission removals, which altogether offset the progress, the report says. 

Emissions from transportation and buildings have gone up 16 percent each since 1990; both were the leading sectors in carbon dioxide emission in 2019, and together contributed 60 percent of the state’s emissions overall.

Concordantly, the state is investing $6.8 billion to reduce building emissions (which is likely to continue trending upward due to a wave of urban growth) and $1 billion to bolster green transportation initiatives, according to a Department of Environmental Conservation spokesperson, who told The Enterprise just before this report was released that transportation is the state’s largest source of CO2 emissions. 

But it’s methane, which is more than 25 times as capable of trapping greenhouse gases as carbon, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, that should turn heads.

Currently, waste is the state’s largest contributor of methane into the atmosphere. Waste generates methane as it decomposes, which in turn traps heat in the atmosphere. This is why environmental education stresses the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. Even still, waste in New York State alone generated 41.4 million metric tons of methane in 2019. 

A DEC webpage states that the average New Yorker generates just under five pounds of waste per day, all of which ends up in one of 30 landfills (accepting 6 million tons of waste per year), a waste-to-energy facility (2.5 million tons processed in 2008), or is exported to another state (6.1 million tons in ’08).

But how to tackle the waste problem is up for debate, and that debate is analogous to the debate over how the state, nation, and world need to approach climate change in general. 

While waste-to-energy facilities are seen as an improvement over dumping into landfills, environmental activists like Alexis Goldsmith, the national organizing director of Beyond Plastics, have taken local lawmakers to task over what are portrayed as rhetoric-minded solutions. 

“Incineration is attractive because the waste becomes out of sight, out of mind, and it can be rhetorically dressed as an environmentally sound practice,” Goldsmith told The Enterprise last year, as Congressman Paul Tonko was championing the CLEAN Future Act.

The Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation's Future Act is to cut in half greenhouse gas pollution from 2005 levels by 2030, and to net zero no later than 2050

“The reality is very different,” said Goldsmith.

Three pounds of burned trash throws up one pound of toxic ash, Goldsmith said, which “readily contaminates the air, soil, and water,” while burned plastic emits dioxin, one of the EPA’s 30 recognized hazardous air pollutants. 

“It has always been obvious that incineration causes problems, but the industry, particularly the plastics industry, heavily lobbies for waste-to-energy schemes, because the alternative is to produce less plastic in the first place,” Goldsmith said.

 The question of how much individuals should alter behaviors and to what extent industries should be reshaped to accommodate that which scientists (and just over half the global population) agree is a dire threat to human existence is a potent one. And, as in all periods of change, those who are asked to give up anything are apt to pose a serious obstacle. 

Since the state passed its climate act, there has been a boost in solar energy facility development in Albany County, including in the Hilltowns, where land is plentiful. 

However, while few if any residents oppose renewable energy in the abstract, individual solar projects are frequently derided by those who worry about sightlines, property values, and community character — a set of concerns summarized by the pejorative NIMBY, which stands for “Not in my backyard.”

Ironically, those most worried about climate change are not those stakeholders with homes in pristine landscapes, but non-white and low-income residents, despite popular perception being the opposite, according to one 2018 study.

That study found that, although “environmentalism” is associated with affluent white communities, environmental concerns are highest in communities that look just the opposite. 

“Many groups that are among the most vulnerable in society also remain significantly underrepresented in environmental decision making,” said study author Adam Pearson, of Pomona College. “Failing to view these groups as concerned may lead to their being excluded from decision making.”

Goldsmith brought up the same core issue when talking about incinerators: Because a waste-to-energy facility would have an enormous aesthetic and environmental impact, they’re often located within marginalized communities, which can suffer as a result. 

“Emissions from trash incinerators can cause life-changing and even deadly health conditions,” Goldsmith said. “The ANSWERS trash incinerator in Sheridan Hollow caused rare disease and cancer rates to rise sharply in that neighborhood,” she said of Albany New York Solid Waste Energy Recovery System.

Of course, climate change itself is all-reaching, and may already be affecting rural New Yorkers. This summer, The Enterprise spoke with farmers about how they had kept their animals cool during a recent heat-wave that drove temperatures well over 90 degrees, and learned that one sheep farmer, Emily Vincent, of Berne, had considered looking for grant money to help cool animals more efficiently as temperatures become more and more likely to hit critical values.

High heat is not only uncomfortable for animals, but can affect the quality and quantity of their production. 

“Instead of milk production, energy is used to regulate [cows’] body temperature,” said Knox dairy farmer Ken Saddlemire. “... In hot weather, food intake is lowered and water intake increases dramatically. A full-grown cow producing milk will drink upwards of 50 gallons a day. In cold weather, food intake increases and water consumption is 20 to 30 gallons a day.”

A study from the Journal of Dairy Science ran simulations of animal production in the United States under varying degrees of heat stress, and found that, with minimal intervention, heat stress could cause an annual loss of $2.4 billion. And, the change in environment will be reflected in animals’ genetic codes, as species do their best to adapt.

“It’s definitely something that’s coming,” Vincent said. 

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