On the morning of December 4, a crowd packed into the ornate council chamber of New York’s City Hall to push their representatives to take the kind of aggressive climate action that the federal government has so far declined to do. The immediate focus was a bill that would require large buildings to dramatically reduce their carbon emissions—a relatively wonky effort that, once upon a time, might have roused about as much interest as a community-board subcommittee meeting. But those days are past: The meeting stretched on for more than five hours as some 70 people testified to a room crammed with as many as 200 onlookers. Their demand: that the city up its climate-change-fighting game by forcing buildings to radically shrink their carbon footprint.
“I can tell you the consequences [of climate change] firsthand,” read the testimony of Rachel Rivera, a member of the grassroots community group New York Communities for Change (NYCC). Although Rivera was unable to attend herself, her words, delivered by a NYCC organizer, echoed through the chamber, replaying the horrors of two of the new breed of superstorms that have traumatized her family: Hurricane Sandy, which caused her ceiling to buckle under the weight of rain water and crash onto her daughter’s bed, nearly crushing her, and Hurricane Maria which flooded her family’s home in Puerto Rico, destroying all of their belongings.
“These climate disasters,” Rivera wrote, “are fueled by pollution that comes out of this city’s buildings every single day. It’s time [these buildings] clean up their act.”
This is where the bill, spearheaded by Queens Council Member Costa Constantinides, comes in. Sponsored by 31 council members, the bill would deliver the largest carbon reduction in any city in history: a 40 percent decrease in emissions from large buildings by 2030, increasing to an 80 percent decrease by 2050. It would do this by mandating hefty fuel-efficiency upgrades for all buildings that are 25,000square feet or larger—a category includes more than 50,000 buildings. That’s only a fraction of the city’s million-building inventory, but a little can go a long way when it comes to emissions: According to a report by New York Communities for Change, the People’s Climate Movement NY, and other local environmental advocacy organizations, 50 percent of the city’s climate-altering emissions are produced by just 2 percent of buildings.
As suggested by the crowds that had gathered outside City Hall to cheer on the legislation, the effort has widespread support from the city’s environmental community—from its more centrist conservation flank to its more activist environmental-justice wing. The steps to City Hall were filled with people demanding “climate justice now!” and waving signs, including a #GreenNewDeal4NYC banner so long that it required nearly a dozen people to hold it up. “There is no city in the world that has anything remotely like this [legislation],” said Pete Sikora, director of Climate & Inequality Campaigns at NYCC, one of the organizations leading the push on the bill.
Part of the reason for the enthusiasm is that the bill has teeth: While past efforts, both in New York City and elsewhere, have merely recommended voluntary emissions reductions, this one would require changes. And it would enforce these requirements with the help of a new Office of Building Energy Performance which would have the authority to sanction buildings that don’t comply. Specifically, if owners of targeted buildings failed to do the necessary renovations to lower emissions—installing green building envelopes that more effectively retain heat and cooling, motion-sensor lighting that minimize electricity waste, and solar panels to cover the leftover energy need—then the office could slap them with a hefty fine.
Moreover, Constantinides has put forward additional legislation that would boost a sustainable-energy loan program to help landlords fund retrofits—thus helping clear at least some institutional opposition.
But perhaps what makes some activists most excited is the bill’s potential green-economy impact: the renovations would create an estimated 14,700 local unionized jobs, primarily for low-income people and people of color. “It’s a green New Deal for New York City,” said Sikora. “That’s really the scale of this program.”
The bill has been years in the making. Ever since 2007, when the city committed to its first-ever emissions-reduction goal of 30 percent by 2030, policy-makers have recognized the necessity of cracking down on the buildings sector. In New York City, as in other major hubs like London and Paris, buildings account for more than 70 percent of annual greenhouse-gas emissions, primarily because of these cities’ older buildings; built before the application of modern building codes, they rely on inefficient boiler systems, poor ventilation, and thin windows demanding excessive air conditioning and heating. These cities are the worst offenders, but the problem is universal: Nearly 40 percent of annual greenhouse-gas emissions emanate from buildings globally.
Despite the pressing need, however, efforts to crack down on the city’s carbon guzzlers have stalled time and again. A large source of the pushback, advocates say, has been the city’s powerful landlords, who have been determined to keep the regulatory space as narrow as possible—and to avoid having to make expensive upgrades. Indeed, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office first proposed an energy mandate as part of its Greater, Greener Buildings plan in 2009, Eddie Bautista, then the director of the Office of City Legislative Affairs, recalls that “REBNY went nuts over it” (REBNY is the acronym for the city’s powerful real-estate lobbying group, the Real Estate Board of New York). At the height of the recession, Bautista says, fearmongering about the bill’s potential harm to the real-estate market had significant sway over the council. REBNY declined to comment.
In the long run, landlords’ cost concerns have little merit, advocates say: Retrofitting can save building owners millions on energy savings per year. The Empire State Building, for example, will save an anticipated $4.4 million each year after retrofitting its way to a 40 percent reduction in energy use. Still, it’s undeniable that the path to those savings isn’t cheap: The Empire State Building’s upfront costs for the project totaled $20 million.
“This is a perfect case of a market failure,” said Sikora. “In theory, building owners know that they can recover the cost. But in reality, what happens is building owners just run the buildings the way they’ve always run them, and inertia wins out.” Moreover, developers who’ve bought into today’s commitment-averse model of property development—who purchase a building just to flip it in a couple years—aren’t likely to incur any of the savings of retrofitting, so why bother?
These tensions get to the heart of both why a mandate is necessary and why it’s been so difficult to push forward: Some of the worst carbon culprits belong to those with the most power to derail the bill. A case in point? According to a report released by ALIGN, an environmental-justice organization that has been instrumental in the bill’s development, some of the most egregious emitters in New York City belong to none other than the climate-change denier in chief. Trump Tower, for instance, with its heated pool, industrial-size laundry facilities, and event spaces—consumes more energy than 93 percent of New York’s largest residential buildings; the Mayfair, Trump’s tony hotel turned condo on Park Avenue, burns up more energy than 98 percent of large multifamily residences.
Landlord interests remain powerful, but after years of mounting pressure on city government, advocates for the bill are hopeful that the time is right. In the decade since the Bloomberg administration first floated the idea of an efficiency mandate, the need for radical climate action has become undeniably urgent: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s jarring October report, carbon emissions will need to fall by about half by 2030 to avoid full-on climate catastrophe. And, given that few of our national leaders seem up to the challenge, local ones are stepping in. Or as City Council member Constantinides told supporters on the steps of City Hall before the hearing: “With the federal government failing to take the lead and taking a huge step back, New York City has to step forward. We don’t have the time to waste.”
This sense of urgency has begun to ricochet around the world. In October, almost two dozen cities—from Sydney to Tokyo to New York City to Los Angeles—made a commitment to operate new buildings at net-zero carbon by 2030. All existing buildings will be held to the same standard by 2050. Taken together, all 19 signatories expect to eliminate 209 million tons of carbon from their buildings by 2050, the equivalent of taking 44.7 million cars off the road for one year.
But even among these cities, mandates are a radical step. Most of the cities are instead relying on incentives—offering tax breaks or low-interest financing to property owners who reduce their emissions—which has some activists worried. “What we’ve seen is that we’re not going to meet the goals we have without mandates,” says Stephen Edel, director of New York Working Families Project. “We’re not going to meet it without money on the table. Those current efforts are insufficient to the challenge of climate change.”
It’s taken years of pressure from environmental-justice organizations and community groups to arrive at the legislation that’s now up for debate. Mayor Bill de Blasio has tried on several occasions to put the mandate idea back on the table, but none of the efforts have gotten traction—in part because of real-estate industry pushback, but also because the groups most directly confronting the climate challenge felt they didn’t push for big enough emissions reductions. In a joint statement responding to de Blasio’s September 2017 mandate plan, 350.org NYC, New York Communities for Change, Tenants & Neighbors and others derided the mayor’s 7 percent emissions-reduction goal as far too cautious, writing that “half of large buildings, many energy hogs, already meet the standard that the city claims is a strong standard for 2030.”
Perhaps more important, these groups pressured the city to take into account the unintended negative consequences such a mandate could impose on a crucial constituency: the city ’s renters. Without the proper protections in place, these groups argued, owners of the cities’ shrinking supply of rent-stabilized apartment units could use a crafty loophole called Major Capital Improvements to displace the cost of efficiency retrofits onto residents—thereby jacking up rents to cover the upfront cost, while failing to distribute the benefits of energy efficiency to residents in the long-term.
The tenants’-rights issue “was completely overlooked in the  plan put forward by the Mayor,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN. “It was good on paper but could impact communities in the process—it was addressing one issue without thinking about the other.” These concerns were shared by a number of organizations. “What is an energy-efficient apartment worth if you can no longer afford it?” asked Annel Hernandez, associate director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.
After working up several drafts of the legislation, Councilmember Constantinides says that the council has finally found a way around tenants’ concerns: The proposed version of the legislation exempts landlords of buildings with rent-regulated units from the most expensive retrofit requirements, establishing more moderate demands over a longer timeframe. While advocates acknowledged at the hearing that these exceptions are not an ideal solution—after all, they slow the pace of the city’s emissions reductions—they argued that the exemptions are necessary, at least until Albany institutes badly needed tenant protections.
“That is the make or break piece of this bill,” said Hernandez. “We’re really happy with where it landed.”
As of now, the bill has the support of 31 council members—well over the majority it needs to pass; but, it’s not a done deal. The date for the vote has yet to be set. Advocates are hopeful that it has enough support in the council and the mayor’s office to pass but are wary that real-estate interests could emerge again to pressure the city into diluting the bill.
“I would not be surprised if the real-estate industry tried to derail this again,” said Bautista, who now serves as the executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, before the hearing. “But I can’t see the real estate industry winning the argument in the way that they did ten years ago.” Indeed while Carl Hum, senior vice president of REBNY, expressed overall support for the council’s efforts in his testimony at the hearing, he also offered some pointed concerns, potentially hinting at desired concessions from the council: first, that the compliance period is too short to allow owners enough time to implement the necessary changes and, second, that no exceptions would be made for different types of buildings with different energy needs.
In a question to Mark Chambers, director of the mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Councilmember Brad Lander recalled the now decade-old first attempt to pass a mandate and reminded the room of the pushback from the real estate industry. “I’m thrilled they’re on board…but I don’t want that to slip. So, I think we need to be honest out loud that we’re going to face both technical challenges and political challenges in passing a strong bill. Are you committed to work through both the technical and the political challenges to get a strong bill?”
Chambers answered in the affirmative. “I don’t ask those questions out of doubt or skepticism,” Councilmember Lander said, amid hushed snickers from spectators. “I ask because we can’t wait any longer.”