As we observe the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, an annual event celebrated around the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection, it is a perfect time to recognize the progress we’ve made in environmental conservation in New Jersey. While we won’t be gathering together due to COVID-19, the cause is still just as relevant today, or even more so, since a recent Harvard study linked toxic air to more acute symptoms and death from the virus. After eight years of climate inaction during the Gov. Chris Christie's administration, we’ve experienced a whirlwind of bold action with Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Legislature.
The Energy Master Plan (EMP) unveiled by Murphy on Jan. 27 of this year stands out as our leading environmental achievement. It outlines key strategies to reach the administration’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2050, an objective 75 percent of New Jerseyans support. Clean energy is vital to the future of the state from both an environmental sustainability and economic development perspective, creating thousands of good local jobs in wind and solar that can’t be outsourced.
The EMP provides a blueprint for New Jersey’s clean energy future, incorporating Murphy’s bold offshore wind, energy storage and community solar goals. The plan will see billions of dollars invested in electrification of our vehicles, ports, homes and an all-electric public transit system that is affordable, reliable and expanded. All of this will result in vastly improved public health from cleaner air and water and a more resilient New Jersey that can manage the worsening impacts of climate change.
Research from the Rocky Mountain Institute, an organization dedicated to the study of profitable innovations for energy and resource efficiency, shows that if we do it right, New Jersey can pragmatically and affordably transition to 100% clean energy. This would mean a revolution in how we power our homes, businesses and communities along with significant health benefits and cost savings on our bills, with no impact on reliability.
Of course there are those who believe a 100% clean energy future is not attainable by 2050 and that the price we’d pay to get there would be too much. Unfortunately some naysayers are determined to keep us reliant on dirty fossil fuels that pollute our air resulting in increased health care costs. For those who oppose the EMP believing it will cost too much to implement and who complain that potential regional cap-and-invest programs that can pay for essential infrastructure upgrades are an unfair tax, I want to challenge that way of thinking.
New Jersey cannot afford to be left behind in reducing carbon emissions that are leading to climate change. Just ask the people who have not fully recovered from superstorm Sandy and the residents near Lake Hopatcong, who last summer saw their beautiful lake engulfed by a toxic algal bloom, along with dozens of other lake communities in the state. In addition to these disasters, climate warming in New Jersey has led to an increase in mosquito-borne diseases, fish populations migrating north and increased flash flooding. In short, the increase in carbon emissions from fossil fuels is diminishing the quality of life for New Jersey residents.
New Jersey also cannot afford to be left behind in creating the new energy economy, which will lead to a wide range of well-paying jobs, such as installing solar panels, auditing energy efficiency, developing electric vehicles and more. If the EMP is used as a guiding framework, it will create a wide range of good-paying, local jobs that can’t be outsourced. New Jersey already has over 52,000 people working in the clean energy economy, and that number will increase as local industries adapt to emerging clean energy opportunities like NJ’s nation-leading offshore wind industry. Even more jobs will be created as the Garden State moves to electrify homes, businesses and transportation — building upon the 7,000 New Jersey workers who are already installing solar panels today. That’s why the New Jersey Sustainable Business Council supports the EMP — “because it provides an indispensable roadmap to creating a more vibrant, sustainable, and equitable economy.”
We also should not forget those who are harmed the most by the cumulative impacts of legacy pollution and climate change. The EMP has a plan to work with and support New Jersey communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution from today’s dirty energy. This plan involves solutions like the expansion of zero-emission electric transportation in low-income New Jersey communities and a focus on community solar energy projects boosted by workforce training in neighborhoods overburdened with pollution.
Importantly, the EMP does not predict the future — it provides analysis and strategies for New Jersey to create the future in a responsible manner. This 100% clean energy future will not suddenly appear. We are in a position to create the future now based on what we do or don’t do. The projections for New Jersey are not good — unless the global release of greenhouse gases is curbed significantly, along with efforts to remove carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. We applaud Murphy for taking the bold step of implementing the Energy Master Plan and for his strong stance on environmental conservation.
On this Earth Day we should follow Murphy’s lead and pledge to do all we can to fight climate change and create a clean 21st century energy future, and keep New Jersey livable for us, our children and grandchildren. We urge the federal government to follow suit.
Ed Potosnak is the executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.