New York Sets The Stage for Reducing Building Emissions and Meeting Climate Change Deadline

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The United States might have pulled out of the historic Paris Agreement to combat global climate change, but New York City is leading a pack of localities taking the reins in energy conservation and pollution control. The city’s Climate Mobilization Act, enacted in April, introduced a variety of new regulations targeting the energy performance of the city’s buildings.

Commercial and multi-family buildings contribute almost 70 percent of New York’s annual 50 million metric tons of carbon emissions – and 95 percent of electricity usage –  so the plan has the potential to make a marked difference toward the city’s climate goals. The regulations also set the tone for the entire nation to meet the goals established by the Paris Agreement, one city at a time.

“We are on the precipice of climate disaster, and New York City is acting,” Corey Johnson, the council speaker, said in a statement on Twitter. “I hope other cities follow suit.”

Climate Mobilization Act

The Climate Mobilization Act mirrors much of the policy in the proposed Green New Deal but at  a municipal level. Not only does it cap emissions for certain buildings over 25,000 square feet – about 50,000 NYC buildings in total – but it establishes steep fines and other penalties for property owners who miss the targets. Landlords of the worst-offending properties have until 2024 to retrofit buildings with energy-efficient windows, heating systems and insulation with a city-wide goal to cut 40 percent of emissions by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.

Supporters of the legislation purport it not only establishes New York as a global leader in cutting climate-impacting pollution, but the rules will create more than 3,600 construction jobs per year in the city and an additional 4,400 jobs in maintenance and other building services.

“This legislation will radically change the energy footprint of the built environment and will pay off in the long run with energy costs expected to rise and new business opportunities that will be generated by this forward thinking and radical policy,” Timur Dogan, an architect and building scientist at Cornell University, told HuffPost.

The Climate Mobilization Act doesn’t stop with regulating building emissions. The regulations also established a loan program for renewable energy improvements, as well as mandates that the roofs of certain buildings are covered with plants, solar panels or small wind turbines.

The act even ordered a 2-year study into the feasibility of replacing all 24 oil- and gas-burning power plants within NYC city limits with renewable energy and batteries. Houses of worship and rent-regulated apartment buildings are exempt from the new rules. 

Implementation and Impact

While plenty of cities are requiring building owners to disclose energy usage and have implemented voluntary standards, New York takes the measures further by attaching fines to its standards. Building owners who fail to meet their carbon reduction requirements will be fined $268 for every ton of carbon over the limit. That might sound negligible compared to the cost of building upgrades, but the largest properties could be charged millions each year.

Combine the possibility of a fine with the cost savings from making energy-efficient building improvements, and meeting the emissions goals becomes a no-brainer. Experts agree that most buildings should be able to increase their energy efficiency fairly easily.

“Buildings in the U.S., and certainly commercial buildings, have been incredibly sloppy in their energy use,” Carnegie Mellon professor of architecture Vivian Loftness told CityLab. “We’ve got mechanical systems that are running at 50 percent efficiency, where there’s things on the market that will run at 95 percent efficiency. We’ve got a lot of room for upgrades for boilers and chillers, air-handling units, control systems—there’s so much room in just the hardware of buildings.”

Of course, while the available upgrades might be fairly obvious, they do not come without a cost. According to the NYC mayor’s office, the upgrades necessary to meet the emissions requirements ultimately will cost about $4 billion. Property owners likely balk at the estimated financial burden without comparing it to the long-term savings, but not all improvements will cost an arm and a leg. Fortunately, guidance is available.

“Building owners and property developers are experts in their own fields, but that is not always so when it comes to energy efficiency and sustainability,” Evolution Energy Partners Vice President of Engineering Rob Holdsworth told Bisnow. “We can show them that there are greener ways to run their facilities that benefit both the environment and their bottom lines.”

Setting a Precedent

New York City’s aggressive plan to combat climate change increases the odds that other large cities will follow suit to reduce building emissions. New York state, for example, is investing in energy efficiency through grants to finance building improvements.

In fact, more than 25 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia and Seattle – as well as the states of California and Washington – already have developed their own strict emissions policies.

In Washington, D.C., properties exceeding 50,000 square feet are required to comply with energy performance standards; those who don’t are moved into an advisory status. Likewise, San Francisco now requires large buildings to use renewable electricity.

Many states and local governments also offer residents ways to finance their energy retrofits in the form of property assessed clean energy – PACE – programs, such as the one introduced in New York to support the Climate Mobilization Act.

Likewise, according to California law, the cost of energy-efficient improvements is covered by the state’s utility companies – a concept that certainly could help New York City building owners meet the costs of improvements. Those costs are covered by the utility companies, and customers pay them back over time through their utility bills. 

“Rather than you, the building owner, having to come up with the money, the utility is coming up with the money, and basically taking the payback through the energy savings,” Loftness said. “Your bill stays the same, but 10 years later, you’ve paid back the ‘loan’ of what they invested in the building.”

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