Democracy Dies in Darkness

Energy and Environment

New York's buildings emit most of its greenhouse gases. The mayor has a plan to change that.

By Brady Dennis, Kayla Epstein

September 13, 2017 at 8:00 PM

The Manhattan skyline, photographed from Brooklyn Bridge Park. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) will announce plans Thursday to force thousands of aging buildings there to become more energy efficient, a first-of-its-kind initiative intended to make the Big Apple a national leader in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

The initiative would mandate that owners of existing buildings larger than 25,000 square feet invest in more efficient heating and cooling systems, insulation and hot-water heaters in the years ahead.

If approved by the City Council, the requirements would apply to about 14,500 private and municipal buildings, which the mayor's office says collectively account for nearly a quarter of New York City's emissions. Most buildings would need to comply with new efficiency targets by 2030, or their owners would face penalties.

"This means bringing the worst-performing buildings in line with the best-performing buildings," said Mark Chambers, the city's director of sustainability. Some older structures are "burning three or four times" as much fossil fuel as newer, more efficient buildings, he noted.

"It's sort of like the Lake Wobegon effect," added Dan Zarrilli, the city's chief resilience officer. "We want everyone to be above average."

The proposed mandates would be the latest — and boldest — action the de Blasio administration has taken to position New York City as a leader in slashing greenhouse-gas emissions to mitigate the effects of climate change.

In 2014, de Blasio announced his "80×50" plan, with a goal to reduce those emissions 80 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2050. In June, de Blasio signed an executive order reaffirming the city's commitment to the international Paris climate accord just days after President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the agreement.

"We have to take matters into our own hands," de Blasio said as he directed city agencies to report by Sept. 30 on their efforts to achieve reductions in carbon emissions.

Though building regulation is a frequent area of contention between New York's government and its business community, there are indications the two sides could find common ground on this issue. Last month, the Urban Green Council, the Real Estate Board of New York and other groups made joint recommendations for how to make local buildings more energy efficient.

"There is remarkable unanimity across the industry that we need to get to these places," Russell Unger of the Urban Green Council told Crain's New York at the time.

But the proposal is unlikely to garner universal support.

For starters, the de Blasio administration will propose annual penalties that increase with a building's size and its fossil-fuel usage. Beginning in 2030, a 30,000-square-foot apartment building that exceeds certain energy targets would pay $60,000 for each year it doesn't meet the new standards, according to the mayor's office. A building with 1 million square feet that was operating outside the required efficiency standards would pay as much as $2 million in annual penalties. Buildings not in compliance also would be prevented from receiving permits for major renovations.

The administration insists the new initiative could lead to lower long-term energy costs and create as many as 17,000 "green jobs" as older structures are retrofitted. But many owners are likely to face big upfront costs to meet the new requirements. City officials said they intend to help owners afford energy upgrades through low-interest financing.

"These proposals require careful analysis, discussion and debate," said John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. "The manner in which these goals are pursued will determine whether or not the future of our city is comprised of mini-storage facilities and buildings without windows or 21st-century energy-efficient buildings that yield good jobs and affordable housing."

New York is not alone in working to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. After Trump's announcement that he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate pact, numerous governors, mayors and businesses independently pledged to push forward with emissions reductions. A group called Climate Mayors — which has 377 members, including de Blasio — committed to working toward the goals laid out in the Paris agreement.

Not all of New York City's environmental initiatives have been successful. A city law mandating a fee on plastic bags was blocked in February by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), although he said he would have a task force work on a statewide plan to address the "plastic bag problem."

Read more:

D.C. and Virginia, bucking Trump, pledge to honor Paris climate pact

McAuliffe proposes statewide carbon cap

In Pittsburgh, they're not buying Trump's climate talk


Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health issues.

Kayla Epstein is the Social Media Editor for National at the Washington Post

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