By Pete Sikora (@PeteSikora1)
In New York City, the top source of climate pollution is the energy use of big buildings. To combat this, the city recently enacted a transformative law requiring buildings to slash emissions 40 percent by 2030 and over 80 percent by 2050. Meeting these requirements will involve upgrading buildings to high energy efficiency, which, in practice, can require everything from switching to LED lights and better insulation to temperature sensors and controls tied to better HVAC systems.
The new law (read the text here) covers the city’s 50,000 largest buildings—those over 25,000 square feet. Starting in 2024, these buildings will need to get below pollution-per-square-foot limits tailored to specific types of buildings. These pollution limits will ratchet down in 2030, requiring more pollution cuts, and then again in later years. By 2050, the law will achieve 80 percent pollution reductions through energy efficiency (in combination with a greening electric grid).
One recent study estimates the new law will generate in the range of $20 billion of new energy-efficiency work, leading to 141,000 new jobs in design, renovation, and construction by 2030. Many of these jobs will be good, union jobs hiring from communities of color.
Moreover, the new law will improve local air quality, cutting oil and gas use in building boilers. It will make buildings more livable since air-sealed, insulated and properly heated buildings are more comfortable. Perhaps best of all: efficiency improvements save money. Even large-scale overhauls of buildings tend to cover their own costs within ten to fifteen years, leading to net-cost savings.
The new law, which is the first of its kind in the world, will begin a Green New Deal in New York City. We think other cities should make it happen, too.
The politics are compelling. American cities are deeply blue. Today, voters in the Democratic primary consider climate change a top issue, with a run of polls showing it’s either a top-tier issue or the top issue of concern for those voters.
Meanwhile, economic development and good jobs are always a top concern. New York’s law combines both: it tackles climate change while creating large numbers of good, new jobs. In the end, it’s hard to be against energy-efficiency requirements that create good jobs. In other words, this approach is a compelling political proposition to an elected official in a blue municipality.
On the other side, New York City’s powerful real estate industry, which has deep pockets and enormous lobbying power, opposed the new law. The real estate industry doesn’t want to be regulated or told what to do with their buildings. They most definitely do not want to be compelled to overhaul their highest-polluting buildings, which costs time and money. Yet, despite the industry’s heated objections, the City Council’s Speaker, Corey Johnson, and Environmental Committee Chair, Costa Constantinides, pushed the law through, with Mayor de Blasio’s support.
Other cities can get this done, too. Activists and elected officials willing to take on the real estate industry should make it a priority. Taking on pollution from buildings is a vital part of climate action. Across the United States, energy use in buildings is the source of about 40 percent of carbon pollution. In many cities, especially in cold climates, it’s well over 50 percent, including 70 percent in New York City.
Globally, cities are responsible for about 70 percent of climate pollution. With energy use in buildings a top source of pollution from cities; cutting climate emissions at the minimal pace and scale of the Paris agreement—over 40 percent by 2030 and over 80 percent by 2050—will require massively upgrading building energy efficiency.
New York City is now on the path to tackling its massive carbon footprint, starting with the largest buildings, those over 25,000 square feet, which are covered by the new law. While they’re only 2 percent of the city’s real estate (5 percent of buildings), these large buildings generate over half the pollution from buildings. Alone, they are the source of about one-third of the cities massive carbon footprint.
In fact, some of the very worst polluters are Trump buildings. Based on self-reported public data, Trump Tower and Trump International Hotel and Tower are among the worst polluters per square foot in New York City. Super-luxury buildings are often super polluters.
But Trump Tower isn’t alone. Millions of people in New York City live in energy-inefficient buildings. A common experience is an apartment so hot in the winter that windows must be opened for it to cool down. That’s almost literally throwing money out the window—while heating the globe. Thanks to the new law, this kind of waste will be eliminated in the coming decades.
The new law tackles the climate crisis at the pace and scale needed. It will create tens of thousands of good jobs. That’s why we call the city’s new law a Green New Deal for New York. It’s time for other cities to also act boldly.
Pete Sikora (@PeteSikora1) is with New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a community-based organization fighting for economic, racial, and climate justice. NYCC played a major role in pushing through New York City’s new law.