How New Jersey Tapped the Public to Help Shape its Climate Future

Edward Paulino
New Jersey State Office of Innovation
5 min readMar 10, 2023

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By Edward Paulino, Fellow, Office of Innovation, State of New Jersey

Every three years, the State of New Jersey drafts a plan to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to fight climate change. Getting the public’s insight and feedback on the latest plan is critical to the process. To improve the scale and quality of public input, stakeholder agencies worked with the Office of Innovation to employ an innovative survey method to engage thousands of New Jerseyans and gather valuable insights that will help shape future climate change solutions. The following shares how the team accomplished this and what was learned.

Background

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey Economic Development Authority and the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities participate in a regional cap-and-invest program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

Through RGGI, New Jersey generates more than $100 million annually in funds that are earmarked for greenhouse gas reduction programs. This funding has been used to boost the adoption of electric vehicles, advance efforts to create a Green Bank to secure clean energy financing, and protect coastal and forest ecosystems. As a new strategic funding plan is developed, it will outline how this money will be allocated — and public input is always part of the action.

Previously, the State gathered public input through in-person workshops and comments submitted via email. Given the limitations on in-person events as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a change in engagement methods was needed. The State required a new approach to gathering feedback and ideas from a significant number of constituents, especially those in under-resourced communities, who are often disproportionately impacted by carbon emissions.

What We Did

To address this challenge, the Office of Innovation worked with project stakeholders to deploy All Our Ideas — a free, open-source survey platform developed by a Princeton University research group. This user-friendly platform prompts users to prioritize one of two preset choices — once a selection is made, a new random pair of choices is presented. As users repeat this process, the preset options are effectively ranked in order of prioritization. Users can also submit their own ideas to be added to the preset options.

For a deep dive into the All Our Ideas platform, read our post: How we used a simple survey tool to elevate public engagement.

For this case, the State used this survey tool to engage with residents to shape RGGI programming. An initial list of 115 climate change mitigation solutions were compiled by government stakeholder agencies. The public was then invited to rank the ideas, or submit ideas of their own. By the end of the four-week voting period, 6,370 New Jerseyans engaged with the campaign, made selections 24,414 times and submitted 163 ideas.

This level of engagement was achieved through a robust and collaborative engagement campaign involving easily shareable content amplified by partners via email and social media. A specific emphasis was placed on working with community-based organizations to target populations in under-resourced communities.

A sample graphic used to promote the engagement on social media. To learn more about partnering with stakeholders to achieve shared goals, read our case study: How New Jersey Asked Workers About the Future of Work: The Importance of Partnership.

What We Learned

The results of the engagement can be organized into five categories: buildings, energy grid, transportation, carbon sequestration and organic waste.

Buildings

New Jerseyans were most interested in funding projects that increased the renewable energy generation capacity of the built environment. Top solutions included enhancing city blocks by improving energy efficiency and planting trees, installing solar panel canopies on top of parking lots, and increasing funding for electric heating and cooling systems. Other top solutions:

  • Install solar rooftops on all public housing
  • Replace streetlights with modern, high efficiency, light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs that use less electricity
  • Fund the use of passive solar design techniques in all new residential and commercial buildings
  • Give homeowners incentives for investing in energy efficiency improvements (e.g., weatherization)

Energy Grid

Increasing the supply of renewable energy alone isn’t enough — investments into the infrastructure that delivers the energy is also important. New Jerseyans prioritized funding upgrades to the electricity grid, building solar parks atop landfills and adding solar to community sites in overburdened communities. Other top solutions:

  • Provide money to build systems that store the energy created by renewables like solar and wind power
  • Fund research and development of tidal power to generate renewable electricity along New Jersey’s coast
  • Use funding to help senior and assisted living communities install on-site renewable energy systems
  • Fund the construction of more onshore wind turbines, as well as offshore

Transportation

The transportation system is a key driver of carbon emissions and particulate air matter. New Jerseyans prioritized solutions that expand commuter public transit like trains and buses, electrifying school bus fleets and creating high-power recharging systems to electrify transit buses. Other top solutions include:

  • Purchase the development rights of abandoned and unused railways to repurpose for bike paths or light rail routes
  • Provide funding for electrification of school buses
  • Expand incentives for New Jersey consumers to buy electric vehicles
  • Make public transit more accessible by expanding service

Carbon Sequestration

Keeping carbon from being released into the atmosphere is a critical step for a sustainable future. Top solutions in this category include reforesting unused farmland, funding wetland and forest restoration, and funding tidal wetland restoration projects to protect coastal communities and wildlife. Other top solutions include:

  • Fund green infrastructure projects that use trees to address stormwater issues and provide public benefit
  • Support community tree planting in urban areas to reduce heat, conserve energy and sequester carbon dioxide
  • Support the restoration of forest health and function in degraded public and private forests
  • Fund seagrass restoration projects, which can store carbon below ground for hundreds of years

Organic Waste Reduction

Curbing organic waste can reduce the amount of waste going to landfills, supplement community nutrition needs and produce renewable energy. Top solutions in this category include funding anaerobic digester systems that turn waste into renewable energy, supporting cold storage to help farmers and anti-hunger organizations, and building capacity for on-site composting. Other top solutions include:

  • Use money to prevent food waste and rescue food through community grants
  • Support zero-waste initiatives
  • Use money to expand food donation programs across the state
  • Fund a grant program to support municipal food waste collection (curbside composting)

These insights will shape the future funding of programs that will impact New Jerseyans for the better. As a result of the stakeholders’ commitment to innovating how government engages with the public, they opened the door to thousands to participate.

To view the full list of results of engagement, visit the NJ RGGI website.

To stay up to date with future updates related to RGGI Strategic Funding Plan investments, sign up for email updates from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

If you are interested in learning more about how to improve policy and services by harnessing the collective intelligence of the public, visit smarter.nj.gov. SmarterNJ — an initiative of the New Jersey State Office of Innovation — works with government to tap New Jersey’s most valuable resource: the intelligence, expertise and know-how of its people.

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Edward Paulino
New Jersey State Office of Innovation

Innovation Fellow at the New Jersey State Office of Innovation.