Climate change is a reality. The United States Environmental Protection Agency says that New Jersey has warmed by three degrees in the last century. The ocean is rising an inch every six years, slowly eroding our coastline and forcing owners of waterfront properties to rethink their future.
The national conversation has moved to legislative action as Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act in August. The spending bill provides $369 billion over 10 years for clean energy and to promote climate resiliency. Specifically, the bill offers new and enhanced tax credits for solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies for the production of electricity that is carbon-free.
Meanwhile, Trenton moved years ago to pass the New Jersey Global Warming Response Act, which empowered the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and other state agencies to develop plans and recommendations for reducing pollutant emissions. Dubbed the 80/50 goal, the initiative seeks to reduce carbon dioxide levels equivalent to 80% below their 2006 levels by the year 2050.
Government is claiming that climate change is here, and it is bad. What do engineering experts think?
“We are definitely seeing the impact from storm effects,” says Mark Vizzini, associate director, Dresdner Robin, a Jersey City-based engineering firm. “We also definitely need to change course. Our state government and municipalities are trying to better themselves, but it is going to require more cross-cooperation,” he suggests.
“Climate change reports are not overblown … and more needs to be done,” agrees Irv Cohen, president and CEO of Lake Hopatcong-based Enviro-Sciences, Inc. (ESI). He adds, “We’ve seen this change coming for a long time. We have reached a point where we need to work as soon as possible to make a positive impact.”
Ray Cantor, deputy chief government affairs officer for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, adds, “Climate change is definitely happening. However, the question remains how quickly is it going to happen, and what should we do to mitigate the impact? Some of the rhetoric from politicians makes for good headlines, but reflects extreme thinking. Climate changes are happening slower than the headlines would indicate, and our ability to adapt is better than what we are being led to believe.”
Gregg Woodruff, PP, AICP, LEED AP BD+C, associate principal/sustainability leader at Langan Engineering, a LEED-accredited professional and an active member of the US Green Building Council, suggests everyone’s concerns are justified.
He says that finding common ground on the details remains a challenge for everyone. “Sorting out the details is a struggle; the regulatory environment is difficult, but I am encouraged by the steps being taken in a number or areas, from transit improvements and cleaner energy production to more efficient buildings,” Woodruff says.
Embracing change, New Jersey’s engineering community has found new ways to serve clients. Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) consulting, for example, is a growth area for many firms. At Langan, the global company is assisting corporate clients in developing and enhancing their ESG plans. Langan performs plan reviews and offers improvement suggestions to what has become a necessary policy document for corporations.
On the municipal level, some urban areas are taking proactive measures. In Jersey City, for example, the local government is trying to be proactive. “It has mapped flooding areas and has begun mitigation efforts,” says Vizzini.
Building designs are also being dramatically impacted by stricter municipal and state climate-related standards. “Green buildings are the reality moving forward with recycled materials, solar, more plantings, and new ways to use buildings to slow down rainwater runoff being implemented,” Vizzini notes.
Matthew Neuls, also an associate director at Dresdner Robin, suggests that urban development needs to include climate-friendly designs. “Green roofs with plantings, trees, etc., help to mitigate heat rise, absorb stormwater, and help mitigate climate change,” he says.
“Land is at a premium in an urban environment. Taller build-outs will be required in order to accommodate the new green infrastructure needs and comply with new and anticipated flood mitigation requirements,” Vizzini suggests.
“We are changing the planning reality on a short timeframe,” says Langan’s Woodruff, who has had to pull permits on projects in process and spend more than a few late nights revising applications to comply with changing flood mitigation rules. “The increase in flooding and the frequency of events is a real issue,” Woodruff admits. “However, working out the details to provide mitigation solutions is a challenge we work through every day.”
Meanwhile, power generation remains an issue without a roadmap. Some professionals hope more is done to incentivize the enhancement of the power grid to provide more innovation, and perhaps experiment with generation options; from rethinking nuclear power to investing in emerging promising technologies, such as wind, hydrogen and solar.
However, professionals lament that the permitting process remains slow and tedious.
“We have clients looking at developing offshore wind projects, but the regulations and governmental processes have us going through hoops,” says ESI’s Cohen. “Even so, I respect that it is a long process for a reason. I think the government is doing the best it can.”
“We think the regulatory balance has yet to be determined,” says Neuls of Dresdner Robin. “Government could do more to incentivize citizens and municipalities to work together. The question remains, do we mitigate for the worst? Do we ruin the value of waterfront property in order to build the highest wall, or is there some kind of compromise?”
Ray Cantor agrees. He sees the need for innovation and steady progress over lofty mandates. “If we try to meet the 80/50 goals with today’s technology, we would create an unaffordable and unsustainable reality for businesses and taxpayers. We need to be driven by science, and not headlines. More time is needed to develop better technologies while we pursue interim steps,” he concludes.
Woodruff has a different take on New Jersey’s 80/50 goal: “We can only achieve great things if we set lofty goals and then do the hard work to try and attain them.”
One thing appears clear: While progress is happening, there remain no easy answers for mitigating climate change.
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