City Council Caps Energy Emissions For Big Buildings

Environmental justice groups convened a rally outside City Hall on Thursday, ahead of the council's passage of building emission regulations.
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Environmental justice groups convened a rally outside City Hall on Thursday, ahead of the council's passage of building emission regulations. Jake Dobkin/Gothamist

The City Council has passed a long-awaited measure aimed at reducing buildings' greenhouse gas emissions, with an eye toward slashing them 40 percent by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050. Mayor Bill de Blasio has previously pledged to sign the bill, which passed 45-to-2 as part of a legislative package that has been hailed as "a Green New Deal for New York City."

In 2015, buildings generated 67 percent of the entire city's greenhouse gas emissions. Heating, cooling, and lighting all require energy, especially without updates to infrastructure—sealing windows, adding insulation—that would plug leaks. The scale of the problem expands with a building's size, making NYC's big buildings (your luxury skyscrapers, your Trump towers) especially serious offenders.

Councilmember Costa Constantinides introduced the bill in late November, with dozens of other council members (including Speaker Corey Johnson) signing on as co-sponsors. It will require the owners of buildings 25,000 square feet and up to make energy-efficient upgrades, with emissions caps that vary by building size. It will also set up an Office of Building Energy Performance to ensure owners stick to the plan.

The bill does include some exemptions—rent-regulated and affordable housing, houses of worship—which critics complain leaves a lot of expensive slack for other building owners to pick up. According to the NY Times, the estimated cost of coming upgrades could top $4 billion, and the real estate industry isn't happy about it.

"To get down to even 20 percent from where I am today, with the technology that exists, there's nothing more that I can do," Ed Ermler, board president of the Roosevelt Terrace co-op in Queens, told the Times. Ermler said he's already poured "hundreds of thousands of dollars" into boiler modernization in the buildings, which date back to the 1950s. When it comes to making quick efficiency updates, he said, "It's not like there's this magic wand."

A companion piece of legislation makes provisions for a program that would help building owners afford the updates. "We want to make sure it's fair," Constantinides told City & State. "We want to make sure that we get the emissions reductions we need."

"Climate change is real," he continued. "There's been pushback [on the bill] from big real estate, there's been pushback from lots of different groups, but at the end of the day, it's a clear choice. Either you're with big real estate, or you're with getting it done. And we're trying to get something done that'll be meaningful for the people of the city of New York."

A series of alarming climate reports have lately hammered home the point that change is coming, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. So the fact that, more than acknowledging the storm gathering on the horizon, city lawmakers are taking active steps to prepare for it gave climate justice groups cause for celebration as they gathered outside City Hall in advance of the vote.

Consider it an Earth Day gift, from the City Council to you: as Johnson put it in a statement, "We are on the precipice of climate disaster, and New York City is acting. I hope other cities follow suit."

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