Connecticut DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes, left, smiles as Gov. Ned Lamont signs his executive order addressing a broad range of climate change measures. CT DEEP

Facing an election year with an environmental track record far skimpier than he may have wanted, Gov. Ned Lamont Thursday unveiled a massive climate change-focused executive order that could make up for some legislative shortcomings. It could also help reverse the state’s current trajectory that falls short of its 2030 greenhouse gas emission targets.

“One of the things you find about democracies is we’re pretty good at responding to emergencies, but we’re not as good when it comes to looking around the corner,” said Lamont at a news conference outside the State Capitol. Commissioners from more than a half-dozen state departments stood nearby. “Frankly, I think we’ve been a little slow on climate change.”

The order contains 23 multi-part items and is clearly a ramp-up of the state’s climate change efforts. But it does not include a direct way to recoup the biggest environmental loss of the most recent legislative session – failure to authorize the Transportation and Climate Initiative. TCI was designed to tackle the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state – motor vehicles.

Broadly, Lamont’s order takes a whole-of-government approach to address meeting greenhouse gas reduction mandates with resiliency and energy-saving measures in place across many state government practices and multiple agencies. It contains building code changes to foster energy efficiency, land-based efforts for agriculture and offers solutions – such as forest maintenance –to help store carbon. It also outlines innovative actions in the areas of public health and climate change, environmental justice, and economic development.

Some items are detailed, others more vague.

Most of the items in the order are not new, however. They are largely drawn from a year-old report – Taking Action on Climate Change and Building a More Resilient Connecticut for All – prepared by working groups totaling nearly 300 people through the Governor’s Council on Climate Change.

“A lot of the things in here should not be surprising,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “It’s really a direct line between this executive order and the phase one GC3 report that was issued in January with those 61 recommendations for near-term actions.

Dykes, who called the order a “landmark,” said “This executive order cements much of our response to climate change. It lays out a whole of government approach to ensure that all of the agencies in this administration are rowing in the same direction, that we’re coordinating effectively, so that we can deliver on our climate agenda.”

That sprawling GC3 report had generated some criticism over the uncertainty of how to implement it. A few of its items came before the legislature this past year, but not all were approved.

A bill to consider whether to adopt stricter emissions for medium and heavy-duty vehicles did not pass, but is getting a second life in the order. Tightened efficiency standards for appliances, which has failed in the legislature on more than one occasion and is a direct money-saver for consumers, is also in it.

Another  measure that allows communities to create stormwater authorities did pass. Lamont’s order sets us several mechanisms to help municipalities do that as well as help them tee-up resiliency and climate change projects that might be eligible for federal funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law.

“It’s going to be driving enormous amounts of investment and activity in infrastructure all across our state,” Dykes said. “Many of the elements of this executive order ensure that our agencies are working together to deliver those investments, fast but also smart.”

The governor said money from the state would come from bonding and that “there’s not a lot of operating revenues that we’re going to need this support this.”

The order also goes beyond GC3 recommendations in some key areas.

Taking a page from the work that was done on TCI before the governor pulled the plug on it for the foreseeable future, the order establishes a Connecticut Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Council within DEEP. That had been in the works as part of the preliminary work in advance of the expected TCI approval.

The GC3 report had looked deeply at the issues around climate change and public health, offering some three-dozen recommendations. The order pinpoints several of those, but goes a step further, ordering the Department of Public Health to establish an Office of Climate and Public Health and directs that office to look at a litany of factors including the impacts of urban heat islands, air quality, drinking water, various diseases and mental health considerations that arise from climate change.

The order also establishes a Connecticut Clean Economy Council with the mandate to “advise on strategies and policies to strengthen our climate mitigation, clean energy, resilience, and sustainability programs, thereby lowering emissions and advancing the state of economic and environmental justice for our residents.”

The many government-focused initiatives will set up state agencies and operations to lead by example with all manner of energy and resiliency retro-fits and acquisitions such as solar systems – many of them in state-owned buildings.

Buildings are a large source of greenhouse gas emissions. But motor vehicle pollution is still the largest. TCI would have put a price on those emissions which would have been passed on to consumers, though the money would have gone to programs to help those least able to afford the cost. Republicans and fossil fuel industries labeled it a gas tax and supporters never overcame that narrative, especially as gasoline prices rose recently due to pandemic factors.

The executive order does include a number of transportation initiatives including development of a statewide battery electric bus fleet by 2035, reduction of miles traveled by state employees and a plan to upgrade culverts to better accommodate stormwater as storms intensify and become more frequent.

“We know that the age of the automobile has accelerated climate change, and we need to do more to address that,” said Garrett Eucalitto, deputy commissioner of the state DOT. “The provisions in the executive order will help us achieve our goal of becoming at the DOT, the potentially greatest solution to fighting climate change instead of the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Charles Rothenberger, energy and climate attorney at Save the Sound, called the electric bus fleet proposal “fantastic,” but said it should have been paired with a more robust effort to obtain zero emissions vehicles for the state fleet and more specifics on how some of the other proposals would work.

He and others took aim squarely at the legislature for failing to approve TCI and other climate-change proposals. “The administration moving forward to do what it can is great, but that doesn’t let the legislature off the hook,” he said. “They still have a responsibility here and a large responsibility to take action. We would certainly hope and urge that the upcoming session really center actions to address the climate crisis as part of that effort.”

Amy McLean, state director at Acadia Center, echoed that, noting as did others that the upcoming session is the shortest that is legally allowed. “The responsibility of not just the governor but now also the legislature to put meaningful climate legislation in place that is going to address specifically greenhouse gas emissions and transportation emissions is necessary,” she said. “We cannot go another year another legislative session without more meaningful legislation on climate.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.