COVID’s tough, but climate change is the bigger threat

Focal point: All eyes are on climate change -- or they should be, according to United National Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

We are at a pivotal moment regarding environment protection, and just as we fast-tracked a COVID-19 vaccine, we must act swiftly – relying on science – to reverse global warming.

Climate change, and its wide-ranging effects on our business environments and everyday lives, is no less a health risk than the coronavirus. And like COVID-19, it’s a crisis we cannot ignore.

In a Dec. 2 speech on the ecological state of the planet, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the fight against climate change should be “the top, top priority of everyone, everywhere” over the next century. He referenced spreading deserts, record ocean warmth and other serious threats to biodiversity, and said “making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century.”

The secretary-general has good reason to be concerned. Even with all the COVID shutdowns, 2020 is on pace to be one of the three warmest years on record – and the decade from 2011 to 2020 will be the warmest ever recorded. The consequences of this trend include melting sea ice, rising sea levels, extreme heatwaves, devastating wildfires, intensifying storms, coastal flooding, air pollution, droughts, crippling disruptions of global food supplies, mass extinctions of multiple species and record-high carbon dioxide and methane levels.

Michael Sahn: Ecological imperative.

Secretary-General Guterres calls this “a moment of truth for people and planet alike.” Climate change must be abated – and that will require state, federal and international action.

President-elect Biden has pledged to recommit the United States to international efforts on climate change, including rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry (a newly created position) has pledged to mandate climate-friendly policies. Other federal action comes from within: The outgoing administration’s rush to roll back existing anti-pollution regulations has met resistance from career Environmental Protection Agency employees.

New York has taken big steps toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including the adoption of the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, which aims to improve the siting and construction of large-scale renewable-energy projects. The act establishes the Office of Renewable Energy Siting, which has proposed regulations that would dramatically streamline siting and permitting for new, major renewable energy projects and associated transmission facilities.

The idea is to speed up the review process with uniform permit standards, while simultaneously ensuring benefits for local communities. The ORES will take a primary role in the expedited review and permit processes, contrasting state policies that have long been riddled with delays.

This expedited process is essential to achieve the state’s ambitious renewable-energy goals, including 70 percent of New York electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The 2019 Climate Leadership and Protection Act mandates that 100 percent of the state’s electric power come from zero-emission sources by 2040 – with statewide emission reductions of 85 percent (below 1990 levels) by 2050.

Those are critical goals, but the new law may produce a lot of controversy, as it limits the role of local municipalities in the approval process. If ORES concludes that local laws and rules are “unreasonably burdensome” in light of prevailing climate-change goals, the state office can override them – a bitter pill for some locales, even if the final permits do include local community benefits.

PSEG has recently embraced these clean-energy goals, partnering with solar power providers to construct and operate solar facilities. The utility’s New Jersey parent company has also agreed to buy an interest in an offshore windfarm project, key to New Jersey’s stated goal of 100 percent clean power by 2050.

These are the first steps on a long road. But with legislative mandates in place and strong state and federal leadership, we can – and must – meet these goals to protect the future of our environment.

This year, we suffered both the devastating impacts of global warming and the pandemic, a real one-two punch. Now, we have to fight back. The COVID vaccines are ready. Now comes the will to protect our planet.

Michael H. Sahn, Esq., is the managing member of Uniondale law firm Sahn Ward Coschignano, where he concentrates on zoning and land-use planning, real estate law and transactions, and corporate, municipal and environmental law. He also represents the firm’s clients in civil litigation and appeals.