Cancún or Can'tcún? Summary of COP 16

This post was written by Jennifer Smokelin.

Last year, after months of build up, politicians, scientists, environmental activists, and Reed Smith attorneys flocked to Copenhagen for COP15: a conference that many hoped would produce a binding international agreement on carbon emissions and an actionable plan for addressing climate change. These goals, of course, weren't realized. Nearly twelve months later, the Conference of the Parties convened once again, this time in Cancun, Mexico. The issues, controversies, and conflicts were very similar.

The outcome of COP 15 last year was the Copenhagen Accord – an agreement that was not adopted by the UN congress as a whole because of the objections of 5 countries. The outcome of this year’s COP (over the objection of one country, Bolivia) are the Cancun Agreements. The Cancun Agreements are a lot less than the comprehensive agreement that many countries wanted and leave open the question of whether any of its measures, including emission cuts, will be legally binding. This is a modest step in international climate negotiations and in its modesty highlights the international discord on the subject and punts a lot of the harder decision to future COPs. For example, the Cancun Agreements declare that deeper cuts in carbon emissions are needed, but do not specify any given mechanism for achieving the pledges each country has made.
 

The following is a summary of progress (or lack thereof) on key international issues.

Future of the Kyoto Protocol

As background, the Kyoto Protocol is the binding international agreement regarding greenhouse gas emissions and is the framework for international reduction of such emissions. The protocol was signed at COP 3 with the signatures of (now) 121 countries. The agreement sets binding greenhouse gas emissions targets for 37 industrialized countries including the European Union in a first phase from 2008-2012. Because it is legally binding it has been instrumental in framing countries’ legal response to climate change – like the EU ETS, Europe’s cap and trade system. But what happens after 2012?

At COP 16, there was clearly a divide between rich and poor countries over the future of the Kyoto protocol after 2012. Maintaining Kyoto is crucial to the future of the Clean Development Mechanism and the offset market, such as LULUCF and REDD+. The Kyoto Protocol is the connecting tissue on all the international GHG framework issues –if it falls (like a house of cards) so do the rest.

From the get-go of COP16 it was clear there was disagreement with regard to the future of the Kyoto Protocol. The crisis over Kyoto erupted at the start of the talks when Japan said it was not prepared to sign on to a second phase of the agreement without commitments on reducing emissions from emerging economies such as India and China because without these other economies, the Kyoto Protocol only committed 30% of the world’s GHG emission to any sort of emission reduction. By the end of COP16, Japan softened its position but Russia and Canada became even more forceful about scrapping Kyoto – meaning that if all three backed out, only 18% of global carbon emissions would be covered by the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol. 18% is not enough to do any sort of good from a climate standpoint.

Midway through the second week, EU and a group of small island Pacific states jointly proposed a new international treaty at the talks to commit developing and developed countries to reducing their climate emissions. The move outraged many developing countries, including China, Brazil and India, who fear that rich countries will use the proposal to lay the foundations to ditch the Kyoto protocol and replace it with a much weaker alternative

In the end the continued resistance by some countries to the Kyoto Protocol was a stumbling block for any meaningful and comprehensive reduction agreements. Still, negotiators finally found a compromise in the Cancun Agreements and, late into the night, delegates cheered speeches from governments that been demanding during negotiations – as, one by one, they endorsed the final draft. However, not much concrete was actually agreed to. The Cancun Agreements state that countries will “aim to complete” work about extending the Kyoto Protocol “as early as possible and in time to ensure that there is no gap between the first and second commitment periods.” Developed nations will consider extending the Kyoto Protocol, but only as part of a wider agreement that commits all countries to making emissions cuts. The text refers to findings by the UN panel of climate scientists that greenhouse gas emissions by developed nations would have to fall by between 25 and 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to avoid the worst damage

Green Climate Fund

The debate over the future of the Kyoto agreement was not the only potential breaking point in the talks. The US climate envoy, Todd Stern, was accused of blocking a deal on the Green Climate Fund by insisting the details be fully worked out at Cancún – instead of deferred to the next set of climate negotiations. If you recall, the Copenhagen Accord (negotiated at COP 15) created the Green Climate Fund, where developed nations promised new funds "approaching $30 billion for 2010-2012" to help developing countries. In the longer term, "developed countries commit to a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion a year by 2020." However, the Copenhagen Accord was never formally adopted by the UNFCCC congress and the Copenhagen Accord avoided the crucial point of how to fund this Green Climate Fund, particularly the long-term $100 billion. Of the agreed $30 billion that was pledged since Copenhagen, only $8 billion has actually been committed to international climate change programs and only $4 billion has actually been received. Going into COP 16, a recent report from the high-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Finance convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon found that while it will be challenging, the developed countries can meet their pledges.

The Cancun Agreements formally set up a financial structure or “Green Climate Fund” that provides funding and technology to less developed nations to stave off the threats posed by climate change. The Fund will manage the annual $100 billion pledged by developing countries at the Copenhagen COP, money that is to be handed out beginning in 2020.

In the Cancun Agreements, the structure of the fund is set out in detail, including governance, voting and accountability. The board will have 15 members from developed and 25 from developing countries. The World Bank is appointed to serve as Trustee for the first 3 years.

Going in to COP16, negotiators recognized the big problem in designing the Fund was giving its operational control to a body with significant financial proficiency, and identifying a financial caretaker for the fund that has the institutional capability to handle billions of dollars. The Cancun Agreements resolved the financial caretaker issue (World Bank), but didn’t advance significantly on the first part of the problem

CCS

Discussions on whether CO2 capture and storage (CCS) can be included under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) have been underway since COP-10 in 2005. At each COP, a decision is often discussed and yet ultimately postponed, with Parties’ positions on support or opposition seeming immobile. At COP-16, on December 4th, the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) proposed a draft decision that, while recognizing that there are issues with CCS and CDM, provided a new context that both respects the issues and establishes a process for resolving them. In contrast, previous decisions on this issue have simply listed concerns, framing the decision in a “yes” or “no” framework.

In the end, the COP parties adopted as one of the Cancun Agreements a decision that carbon dioxide capture and storage in geological formations is eligible as project activities under the clean development mechanism, provided that the issues identified at COP 15 (in decision 2/CMP.5, paragraph 29, to be exact) are resolved and the next SBSTA “elaborate modalities and procedures for the inclusion of carbon dioxide capture and storage in geological formations as project activities under the clean development mechanism, with a view to recommending a decision to the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol at its seventh session (that is, COP 17)” Thus there is now a path towards getting CCS included under CDM.

REDD+

REDD+ (“reducing emissions from deforestation and (forest) degradation”) essentially supports developing countries financially and technically, to either prevent deforestation or regenerate forests through afforestation. The resulting carbon sequestration is aimed to reduce overall emissions, while the move itself will enable sustainable forestry and halt degradation. The negotiating language covering REDD+ was the most settled coming into Cancun.

The final language is a careful compromise among the parties. The negotiation points in COP 16 were limited to a few obstacles, specifically related to financing (see above) and whether REDD+ can be counted in countries'" Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions". The Cancun Agreements build an international system to reduce deforestation, another important step in officially adopting proposals from the Copenhagen Accord. For much of the developed world, REDD is being viewed as a mechanism to reduce global GHG emissions. At present, developed nations are facing severe economic and political roadblocks to implementing concrete emissions reduction targets through domestic legislation – they can use REDD credits instead to meet reduction targets. However, funding REDD remain unclear, particularly in the long term. As of now, REDD would be financed in an adhoc approach through seed funds set up by developed nations and through private sector voluntary carbon markets. When negotiators meet next year in South Africa they will need to add more substance to these efforts.

In sum, in Cancun 193 nations attempted to hammer out their differences and finalized the Cancun Agreements that alone will not solve global warming. The Cancun agreements did formalize many of the proposals of the Copenhagen Accord and establish a temperature target for climate change mitigation, an agreement on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), and the architecture for a climate green fund that apply to all parties and not just developed countries. Look for clarification on all these issues at the next COP. Most agree that REDD will rapidly move forward over the next few years with encouragement from developed nations (for the cheap offsets) and developing countries (for the preservation of forests and offset profit) that view REDD as a faster vehicle to control deforestation and GHGs, as well as a source of economic incentives to tackle clear cutting and forest fires.
 

UNFCCC and COP-16: Living the Adage "Under Promise and Over Deliver"?

This post was written by Jennifer Smokelin.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC), which will be held in Cancun, Mexico, from November 29 to December 10, 2010, encompasses the sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP) and the sixth Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP). It sounds like a big deal but you don’t hear much about the COP in the media these days. Does anyone recall the frenzy about the COP this time last year? We certainly remember the speculation regarding which heads of state would be attending and what agreements would be reached. It felt like the Super Bowl of COPs. This year feels a lot different. The COP is meeting with far less hype and we wonder whether the conference parties learned their lesson from last year and decided to abide by the adage “under promise and over deliver”.
 

 

Perhaps. It’s not like there aren’t significant decisions to be made this year. To discuss future commitments for industrialized countries under the Kyoto Protocol, the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP) established a working group in December 2005 called the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP). In Copenhagen, at its fifth session, the CMP requested the AWG-KP to deliver the results of its work for adoption by CMP 6 in Cancun.

At its thirteenth session in Bali, the COP launched a comprehensive process to enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the UNFCCC through long-term cooperative action (LCA) now, up to and beyond 2010, in order to reach an agreed outcome and adopt a decision at its fifteenth session in Copenhagen. This process has been conducted under the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA). In Copenhagen, the COP decided to extend the mandate of the AWG-LCA to enable it to continue its work with a view to presenting the outcome to COP 16 for adoption. It is under the AWG-LCA that the Copenhagen Accord was reached at COP 15.


Like Last Year, the Environmental Law Resource Blog Will Provide Daily Updates of COP-16 Starting on November 30, 201.


With comprehensive climate legislation or even more-narrow energy legislation shelved in the United States there is little hope for any significant movement on a global climate change treaty this year – since most major nations will not agree to binding emission reduction in the face of inaction by the United States. This is frustrating to many world participants, particularly since it looks like US climate policy will not be making any significant strides towards placing a price on a ton of carbon in the wake of the recent elections. World leaders are therefore looking elsewhere – outside the UNFCCC process – to address climate issues. And where might they land? On a protocol, but not Kyoto – instead, some world leaders are looking to the Montreal Protocol to address global climate change. The Montreal Protocol was adopted in 1987 for a completely different purpose, to eliminate aerosols and other chemicals that were blowing a hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layers. And it has been amazingly successful at addressing this problem on a global level. The idea would be to use this successful template to address GHG emission – expanding the ozone treaty to phase out the production and use of the industrial chemicals known as hydro fluorocarbons or HFCs – one of the 6 Kyoto GHGS that has thousands of times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. If the UNFCCC fails to address climate change, look to the Montreal Protocol to be expanded to address at least the high global warming potential GHGs under the Kyoto Protocol.
 

Climate Change Legislation is Dead. Long Live Climate Change Regulation!

This post was written by Larry Demase, Jennifer Smokelin and David Wagner.

Although an energy bill is now on the Senate floor, it is limited to energy conservation and issues related to the oil spill. It does not include a price on carbon in the form of cap and trade for any sector, and we are unlikely to see comprehensive climate legislation in September or later this year. So now what? Congressional failure to act now or later in 2010 means that, on the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ("USEPA") will step in and use its authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases ("GHGs") from the utility, transportation and industrial sectors, and there is a small possibility that such regulation by USEPA will include a cap-and-trade program. To be sure, USEPA has already taken several steps to regulate GHGs. 

The following post discusses what will likely come out of Congress and USEPA's ongoing efforts to enact measures that regulate GHGs.

Federal Climate Change Legislation is Dead in Congress
 

What's Left of Energy Measures in the 111th Congress and What Will We Get Before the August 9 Recess?


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has declared that the proposed legislation he will bring to the Senate floor this week will address energy efficiency and will encompass issues related to the oil spill. A draft of the bill, titled "Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act," discloses that such a bill will raise the $75 million spill-liability cap for oil companies under the short title "Big Oil Bailout Prevention Unlimited Liability Act of 2010." Further, Division C of the bill would provide $5 billion in incentives for the "Home Star" energy-efficiency retrofit program, which would provide sale rebates to encourage homeowners to make energy efficient upgrades. Further, the bill would provide tax breaks for natural gas vehicles and electrification of transportation infrastructure (Division B), and boost money for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (Division D).
In sum, the Senate is moving toward an energy measure that addresses offshore drilling and energy conservation measures. Would the president sign such a bill? Likely yes.
 

Will There be Action on Comprehensive Climate Legislation in September or in "Lame Duck" November Congressional Activity?


Probably not. Congress is expected to wrap up major legislative action by early September, at the latest – and most say that if any action is to occur, it will occur before the August 9 recess. As indicated above, there will be no comprehensive climate change legislation before the August 9 recess. Following the August 9 recess, the fall campaign season begins for the midterm Congressional elections and the Senate likely would lose focus on GHGs.
 

There is the possibility of Democrats adding cap-and-trade provisions to a House and Senate energy conference during the November "lame duck" session of Congress. The lame-duck session occurs after the November election, when much of the political pressure on lawmakers has dissipated.
 

Some observers have speculated that the House-passed Waxman-Markey bill (that includes cap and trade) could be back in play during conference, or that Democratic leaders could use a conference to ratchet up the climate provisions in a final bill. However, Republican leadership is taking pains now to ensure that does not happen. Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) recently introduced an amendment that would require the support of two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes, to include cap-and-trade climate legislation in a House-Senate conference report if the Senate has not already debated and approved it with the normal 60-vote threshold.
 

There is also the possibility of Congressional preemption of USEPA action. West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, has proposed suspending the EPA's greenhouse gas regulations for two years. Reid has not yet announced whether he will take up Rockefeller's amendment before the end of the year. Reid may face pressure to do so from within his own caucus, as several moderate Democrats voted against Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) resolution to revoke EPA's "endangerment finding" on carbon emissions because they were promised a later vote on Rockefeller's toned-down version.
 

But Federal Climate Change Lives at USEPA: The Agency is Moving Ahead with Technological Controls

The Endangerment Finding


On December 7, 2009, in response to the decision of the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007) that GHGs were air contaminants, the USEPA Administrator made two distinct findings regarding GHGs. The first, known as the Endangerment Finding, is applicable to stationary and mobile sources and concludes that GHGs threaten (endanger) the public health and welfare of current and future generations. The second finding, known as the Cause or Contribute Finding, states these same GHGs, when emitted from new motor vehicle engines, cause or contribute to GHG pollution that threaten public health and welfare. See Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases Under Section 202 of the Clean Air Act, Final Rule, 74 Fed. Reg. 66496 (December 15, 2009). The Endangerment Finding has the effect of triggering USEPA action under the stationary source provisions of the Clean Air Act. The Endangerment Finding has come under attack both through petitions to reconsider and legal challenges. On June 18, 2010, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals decision set aside one group of challenges to the Endangerment Finding until EPA considers pending petitions to reconsider the Endangerment Finding.
 

Mandatory GHG Emission Reporting Rule


Prior to the issuance of its Endangerment Finding, on September 22, 2007, USEPA adopted a Rule (40 C.F.R. Part 98) requiring the mandatory reporting of greenhouse gases from certain sources that emit 25,000 metric tons or more of GHGs per year. USEPA's mandatory reporting regulations do not require sources to control their GHGs emissions, but it was not long after the initial rules were promulgated that USEPA moved in that direction, further pressuring Congress to act.
 

USEPA Acts to Control GHG Emissions from New or Modified Stationary Sources: The GHG 'Tailoring' Rule

 
On May 13, 2010, USEPA issued a final rule setting thresholds for sources of GHGs that defined when permits will be required for new sources under the Prevention of Significant Deterioration ("PSD") provisions of the Clean Air Act. This rule applies only to relatively large commercial sources of GHGs and is to be implemented in two steps.


The first step (January 2, 2011 through June 30, 2011) will require GHG sources subject to PSD permitting because of other types of emissions to also address GHG emissions. For these projects, GHG increases of 75,000 tpy will, inter alia, trigger the requirement that best available control technology ("BACT") is to be used to control GHG emissions.


In the second step (July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2013), PSD permitting will cover new facilities that emit GHG emissions of at least 100,000 tpy, and modified facilities that increase emissions by at least 75,000 tpy, even if they do not exceed the permitting thresholds for any other pollutant.


Requirements for new sources that are built after June 30, 2013 have not been established by USEPA, but the Agency has said it would undertake another rulemaking in 2011 on a third step for phasing in GHG in which it will address whether certain smaller sources can be permanently excluded from permitting.


This rulemaking is known as the "tailoring rule" because it limits which facilities would be subject to PSD permitting. USEPA promised to provide states with guidance related to BACT requirements for GHG sources.


In the absence of ambient air quality standards for GHGs, it is difficult to see how the Tailoring Rule will be justified under the PSD provisions of the Clean Air Act.


USEPA Cap-and-Trade Programs


USEPA has a number of successful cap-and-trade programs in place. The oldest and most successful is its Acid Rain allowance trading program designed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions for the utility sector. It was established under Title IV of the Clean Air Act and could be a model for a GHG trading program, particularly if it is limited to electric utilities and retains the simplicity of the Acid Rain Program. There are major differences, however, between the comprehensive, economy-wide cap-and-trade programs proposed by Congress and the Acid Rain Program. Most notably, the Acid Rain Program allows no offsets. Offsets, or emission reduction credits from non-covered sources in a cap-and-trade program, are a large part of many of the economy-wide cap-and-trade programs proposed in Congress, and are widely seen as a great tool for economic development and as a way to "bring in" non-covered sources under the cap. So far, however, USEPA has eschewed cap and trade as a regulatory scheme to regulate GHG and has decided to proceed with technological controls perhaps, in part, because it believes that will encourage industry to support the more flexible cap-and-trade legislation – and, in part, because of USEPA's recent woes in the Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal with getting approval of the Clean Air Interstate Rule ("CAIR") and its progeny (discussed below).

USEPA's Cap-and-Trade Programs Vacated


If USEPA does go ahead and regulate greenhouse gases by a cap-and-trade system, it must consider how to do so with a plan that will survive judicial review. Since 2005, USEPA has seen Bush Administration cap-and-trade programs to reduce mercury, and nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, vacated by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Clean Air Mercury Rule ("CAMR") and the CAIR both would have utilized a cap-and-trade system. Both approaches were rejected by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals: (1) CAMR was vacated in 2007, NRDC v. EPA, 489 F.3d 1364 (D.C. Cir. 2007); and (2) CAIR was vacated in 2008, North Carolina v. EPA, 531 F.3d 896 (D.C. Cir. 2008). The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reinstated CAIR – including the cap-and-trade system – until USEPA issued a new rule, 531 F.3d 896, 901 (D.C. Cir. 2008). On July 6, 2010, USEPA released a draft of the proposed replacement rule, the Transport Rule. It contains limited cap-and-trade provisions. It is obvious that if USEPA decides to adopt a cap-and-trade program without the benefit of legislation, it must do so very carefully. It is therefore likely that if USEPA moves forward to regulate GHGs from the utility and manufacturing sector, it will be under a "command and control" approach and technological (BACT) limitations.

Conclusion


The next few weeks will likely solidify the fact that there will be federal regulation of emission from GHGs sources, but by everyone's "second best" source choice, USEPA. It is important to note that a failure by Congress to come to a consensus on regulating GHG emission leaves the probability (some may say certainty) of GHG emission controls by USEPA in the industrial and utility sectors starting in January 2011.

New Climate Bill Introduced in U.S. Senate

This post was written by Ariel Nieland.

After much anticipation, Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) finally unveiled their comprehensive energy and climate bill, known as the American Power Act, in a press conference yesterday afternoon. The bill's release was delayed by several weeks after prior co-sponsor Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) withdrew his support following a dispute over unrelated immigration reform legislation. Below are some of the bill's key features:

  • Aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020 and 83% by 2050, targeting heavy industry, power plants and transportation infrastructure.
  • Removes disincentives for natural gas generation at merchant plants in order to level the power sector playing field, and plans to help guide state regulators by requiring public disclosure of chemicals used in natural gas production.
  • Places a cap on carbon emissions for producers of more than 25,000 tons of carbon pollution annually, which includes approximately 7,500 U.S. companies. Producers with a mandatory cap may trade carbon credits in the primary market, while the secondary market will be open to all participants. Carbon credits would start at $12 per ton.
  • Provides financial incentives for a variety of energy producers, including regulatory risk insurance and loan guarantees for a dozen new nuclear plants; $2 billion a year for coal technologies that can capture and store greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon capture and storage; and $7 billion a year for improvements to transportation infrastructure and efficiency.
  • Encourages offshore oil drilling while providing states with veto power over drilling in neighboring states along with the ability to opt out of any drilling within 75 miles of the state's own shoreline. States that oppose drilling could pass laws blocking the activity, while states that choose to drill may retain 37% of federal royalties raised.
  • Preempts any state-operated cap-and-trade programs already in existence, and compensates states for any revenue lost as a result.
     

New York Governor Approves Two Green Building Laws For Residential And State Structures

This post was written by Eric M. McLaughlin and Keisha M. Williams.

In late September, New York became the latest state to give the green light to “green building,” after Gov. David Paterson signed two bills introducing green building performance standards for construction and renovation of New York state government buildings, and a Grants Program for green residential builds. The new laws aim to encourage and incentivize the construction of energy-efficient, sustainable buildings, using recyclable and environmentally friendly materials, and are in line with the governor’s “15 x 15” plan to reduce energy use by 15 percent of expected levels by 2015. New York’s new laws highlight the fact that buildings account for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and more than 70 percent of its electricity consumption, and that these impacts can be reduced by regulations governing design and construction.

The State Green Building Construction Act (A. 2005) (State Building Act) will require all new state-owned buildings, and substantial renovations of existing state-owned buildings, to comply with green construction principles set forth in standards to be developed by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). State agencies will also be required to prepare annual building performance reports containing information on their green credentials, including energy consumption, waste reduction, and how indoor air quality compares with set benchmarks. The State Building Act takes effect 180 days after signature, on or about March 25, 2009.

The second law, referred to as the Green Residential Building Program (S. 8134) (Residential Program Act), is of immediate effect. It authorizes NYSERDA to create and administer guidelines and criteria for the design and building techniques used in the residential sector. NYSERDA will have discretion as to what such guidelines will encompass, including the freedom to decide on eligibility criteria, application procedures, award determinations, inspection procedures and documentation requirements. Those intended to fall under the Residential Program Act will be builders and renovators of single- and multi-family homes with fewer than 12 dwelling units. The Residential Program Act also offers grants to builders of environmentally smart residences, an incentive already in place in the commercial sector. Grants will be paid out to owners who fulfill the required standards and who produce a certificate of occupancy for their buildings on or after Jan. 1, 2010, and before Oct. 31, 2013. All grants will be subject to a cap, based on a number of considerations, including the size and type of the residential structure, and whether the owner is eligible for any other type of financial assistance from any other source. The cap on incentive payments will operate as follows:

  • Grants for residential buildings with two or fewer dwelling units may not exceed $7,500
  • Grants for residential buildings with three to five dwelling units may not exceed $11,250
  • Grants for residential buildings with at least six dwelling units may not exceed $15,000

No single owner may receive more than $120,000 in grants under the Residential Program Act in any one calendar year.

In enacting these two green building laws, New York follows California, which was the first state to implement green building standards by adopting the California Green Building Standards Code (California Code) in July 2008. The California Code seeks to accomplish benefits similar to those of New York’s State Building and Residential Program Acts, with an emphasis on improving energy-efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water conservation. Unlike the New York laws, however, the California Code is all encompassing, applying to construction of residential, commercial and state buildings – from hospitals to schools, and from homes to businesses.  Also unlike the New York initiatives, compliance with the California Code is currently optional, and will only become mandatory in 2010.

Compared with New York’s two new green building laws, the California Code has arguably set more stringent energy efficiency standards, with the latter demanding compliance with firm and more detailed objectives, including the need for developers to obtain a 15 percent reduction in energy use compared with current standards, construction waste reduction of 50 percent, and a 50 percent reduction in landscape water conservation beyond current mandated levels. The California Code also requires new buildings to be dual-plumbed for potable and recyclable water systems, use Energy Star appliances, and use eco-friendly flooring, carpeting, paint, coatings, thermal insulation, and acoustical wall and ceiling panels. The California Building Standards Commission compares the measures under the California Code to a “silver rating” under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. The New York laws require DEC and NYSERDA to consult the LEED standards and the American National Standards Institute in the development of their guidelines and criteria, but it is unclear at this stage how stringent those requirements will be. However, New York’s laws go farther than the California Code by offering clear, though very limited, incentive payments for construction or renovation of green buildings. 

A related development that will give builders some comfort as they calculate the cost of going green is that last month, Congress approved the extension and expansion of the various tax benefits for renewable energy businesses and investments. In particular, the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 (part of the massive federal economic rescue plan) extends the investment tax credit for eight years, and the renewable energy production tax credit for either one or two years, depending on the type of facility.

Reed Smith attorneys are actively monitoring new developments concerning implementation of New York’s green building laws, including the participation of interested stakeholders in this ongoing process. Please contact us for additional information or for assistance in providing comments at upcoming workshops. Additionally, Reed Smith represents clients in all aspects of the real estate development and construction process, from assistance with basic licensing and registration requirements, to contract negotiations and mechanics' lien matters, to resolution of disputes in virtually any forum.