New York City Fights Climate Change in a Big Way Bob Hinkle

June 12th, 2019

Low Carbon Economy

New York City likes to do things in a big way. From its 24/7 culture to its 237 skyscrapers, there is nothing small about the Big Apple. Now, thanks to the Climate Mobilization Act, New York can also boast the biggest, most aggressive climate legislation in the country.

It’s those big buildings that are at the crux of the legislation. According to some estimates, the city’s skyscrapers produce 70% of New York’s carbon emissions. To tackle this problem head-on, the local government did not propose a modest solution. They swung for the fences.

The Climate Mobilization Act is a big deal. The scope is breathtaking. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Under the Act, buildings over 25,000 square feet in size will have to implement EE measures to hit a mandated reduction of 40% by 2030 or they’ll be assessed a penalty of $268 per every assessed ton of carbon over the cap. It is estimated that the largest offenders will pay fines of at least $1 million.

We like this Act in part because it has teeth. There have been many initiatives with great goals that get people excited but don’t carry any consequences for inaction. This bill is one of the first to have time-bound, monetary consequences if energy end-users of a certain size don’t act to cut their emissions. The Act is not solely sticks or solely carrots (in the carrot vs. stick world); it has sticks but it is also developed with the knowledge that all the tools are in place for building owners to act now. It is also a natural follow-up to New York’s mandatory energy auditing and reporting legislation that preceded this Act a few years ago.

What New York is doing is bold. It’s the first city to attach a dollar value to these disclosure figures. Washington, D.C. passed a building-energy performance standard in December for buildings over 50,000 square feet, and when buildings in the District fall out of compliance those landlords will be moved into an advisory lane to get back on track. San Francisco passed a law this month requiring big buildings to switch to renewable electricity, an easier goal for a city with a forgiving climate located in a state with a cleaner grid.

While NYC landlords and political opponents have seized upon some of the most aggressive aspects of the Act, the rest of the nation will be watching closely to see if such an audacious initiative can succeed in the country’s most populated city.

Which raises the question: Will other cities follow New York’s lead? We posed that question to two New York-based experts who are familiar with many aspects of the legislation.

“It depends on the state,” said Marc Rauch, Senior Specialist, New York Clean Energy Real Estate, Environmental Defense Fund. “We did a study last year that revealed there are at least 25 cities in the US where more than half of the greenhouse emissions came from buildings. That’s really significant. That means, for cities that want to reduce greenhouse emissions, there’s opportunity for legislation like this, regardless of what’s happening at the national level.”

According to Phil Ortiz, Assistant Director for External Affairs from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability: “To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, cities around the world must immediately take aggressive steps to make buildings cleaner and more efficient. For many cities, buildings are the number one source of emissions. This legislation establishes a model for other cities around the world to follow, and we expect that many of them will choose to do so.”

I hope many cities do follow New York’s lead. Metrus believes strongly that acting locally and thinking globally is the key to a sustainable future. That’s one of the reasons we made a significant commitment to We Are Still In last year. As a loyal Boston Red Sox and Bruins fan, rooting for New York isn’t something that comes easily to me, but in this case, I hope its Climate Mobilization Act wins big.