By Tom Gilbert
If New Jersey were to have a 2021 poster child for climate change, it would not be a child at all. It would be a storm named Ida which caused havoc and heartache by dumping up to 11 inches of rain on a landscape already saturated from previous storms.
The remnants of the tropical hurricane brought torrential downpours to parts of the state in early September.
Tragically, at least 30 New Jerseyans died in flash flooding – more than in any other state – and hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Twelve of New Jersey’s 21 counties were declared federal disaster areas.
Unfortunately, extreme storms and higher rainfall are expected to increase in this state we’re in, as the Earth’s atmosphere continues to warm.
A recent study by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection confirmed that climate change brought increased rainfall to New Jersey over the last 20 years and will continue to do so in the upcoming decades.
Much of New Jersey’s environmental news in 2021 was directly or indirectly related to climate change and our state’s efforts to avoid the worst impacts while there is still time.
The Murphy administration’s Energy Master Plan to achieve 100% clean energy by 2050 is an important roadmap.
The Governor recently signed an executive order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors 50% by 2030, heeding the urgent call of climate scientists to make significant progress in the next decade by reducing the burning of fossil fuels and transitioning to clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
Mother Nature can also help to meet critical emissions targets. In December, the New Jersey departments of Environmental Protection and Agriculture jointly released a “scoping document” describing the ways natural and working lands can be used to store carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.
“Natural and working lands, including forests, wetlands and agricultural lands, can play a role in climate change mitigation by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through long-term accumulation in vegetation and soils,” according to the document.
The agencies are taking public comments on the scoping document through Feb. 11 and a comprehensive plan is expected be completed before the end of the year.
To comment or find out more, go to https://nj.gov/dep/climatechange/mitigation-nwls.html?utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery
Permanently protecting natural lands not only ensures they will always be available to sequester carbon. They also provide habitat for wildlife and places where the public can enjoy the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of nature and the outdoors.
One of the most powerful forces helping to protect New Jersey’s land is the Green Acres program, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2021. Green Acres is the longest-running continuous program of its kind in the nation, preserving more than 700,000 acres since 1961.
The official celebration of Green Acres’ 60th anniversary in June 2021 included the dedication of the Holly Farm property in Cumberland County – 1,400 spectacular acres of environmentally sensitive land that conservationists had fought to protect for more than two decades.
More good news for open space came with the announcement in November that the state will help purchase nearly 9 miles of abandoned railroad corridor proposed for a linear park known as the Essex-Hudson Greenway.
The 100-foot-wide urban Greenway, spearheaded by the Open Space Institute and local communities, will stretch from Jersey City to Montclair and will feature a hiking and biking path, benches, gardens and art – similar to New York City’s High Line.
New Jersey also won a major victory by stopping the unneeded PennEast interstate gas pipeline from being constructed. The fight went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court as the Murphy Administration challenged the company’s right to seize state lands preserved for the public.
A broad coalition of landowners, elected officials and New Jersey conservation groups and residents vigorously fought the PennEast pipeline, which would have carried unneeded fracked gas from northeastern Pennsylvania to New Jersey.
The nearly 120-mile pipeline would have taken scores of public and private lands, crossed thousands of acres of preserved open space and farmland in Hunterdon and Mercer counties, and posed serious threats to clean water and wildlife.
After a seven-year battle, victory came in October when PennEast dropped plans to seize land or develop the project. In December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission officially vacated its prior authorizations.
Well-sited renewable energy
New Jersey is quickly becoming a national leader in the development of offshore wind, bringing clean energy and thousands of family sustaining jobs to the state. Last year also brought progress in expanding access to well-sited, clean solar energy.
The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities approved the second round of Community Solar projects and the Governor signed a bill to advance larger utility-scale solar projects with provisions to foster sound siting that avoid clearing our forests and generally steer solar development away from prime farmland prioritized for preservation and agricultural retention.
Good news came in 2021 when Pilesgrove Township, Salem County, rejected a proposal for a utility-scale solar project on more than 800 acres of prime farmland in an Agricultural Development Area. New Jersey does not need to sacrifice its best agricultural lands to meet its critical clean energy goals.
Another threat to open space and communities in New Jersey is the proliferation of warehouses. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, brick-and-mortar shopping centers were in decline. But the situation accelerated during the past two years as many consumers increased shopping online as a result of the pandemic.
With the surge in e-commerce came the need for more warehouses to store, sort and distribute goods – and more trucks to make deliveries.
Some new and proposed warehouses are well located on industrial sites with quick access to major highways, but far too many are proposed on prime farmland and open space, near already overburdened residential neighborhoods, or along local roads that cannot handle massive truck traffic.
The state Legislature is considering several bills to control warehouse sprawl. These bills address the need for regional planning and seek to ensure warehouses are sited near suitable transportation corridors, instead of covering prime farmland or generating truck traffic through neighborhoods.
Saving the bees
Farming is a billion dollar industry in New Jersey and it needs robust bee colonies to pollinate many crops. Pollinators, including domesticated honeybees and wild bees, are suffering severe declines due to neonicotinoid insecticides, more commonly known as “neonics.”
A bill to phase out unnecessary neonic use by lawn care companies and consumers has already passed in the state Senate and is scheduled for a vote in the Assembly before the current session expires this month.
More encouraging news for pollinators came when New Jersey’s Statehouse Commission decided to amend all leases to farmers on state-owned land to phase out neonic pesticides by 2023.
Those are just a few 2021 environmental highlights. The upcoming year will see many challenges, including implementing the new Environmental Justice Law, strengthening regulations to protect against climate threats, appointing qualified members to the state’s Pinelands Commission and Highlands Council, and the start of the state’s ban on single-use plastic shopping bags in May.
At the federal level, it is urgent that Congress reach agreement on comprehensive action to address the causes and impacts of climate change after the Build Back Better Act was blocked by one senator from West Virginia.
Making progress on these pressing issues requires active engagement by people committed to the protection of our environment and communities, so please make it one of your New Year’s resolutions to make your voices heard.
Tom Gilbert is the co-executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation. He may be reached at email@example.com