This past spring, New York City enacted landmark legislation that seeks to dramatically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of large buildings like the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center. The passage of the bill, which was the centerpiece of a package of proposals called the Climate Mobilization Act, was hailed as a bold and aggressive action that takes aim at the city’s most iconic and polluting assets.
New York’s large and aging building stock has long been one of the city’s worst environmental offenders. All told, buildings are responsible for contributing nearly 70 percent to the city’s carbon emissions, through their high demands for heating, cooling and lighting and a tendency, especially among older structures, to be inefficient through either poor insulation or old windows. But they also represent the domain of one of the city’s most politically powerful interest groups: landlords and the real estate industry, who objected to the plan due to costs and what they saw as unfair selection of buildings.
“This is a big deal,” said Mark Chambers, Director of Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. “This has never been done before and it’s globally significant.”
As the global climate crisis worsens, Chambers said that other cities and municipalities have been inquiring about New York’s initiative and he expects them to follow suit. The new regulations on buildings is part of a broader climate change strategy, which calls for New York City to be carbon neutral by 2050.
What exactly does the new law do?
Under Local Law 97, New York City will set emission caps on buildings larger than 25,000 square feet. That comes out to a total of 50,000 buildings, which according to the Urban Green Council makes up 3.15 billion square feet or nearly 60 percent of the city’s building area. Of the impacted buildings, 59 percent are residential and 41 percent are commercial.
The goal is to achieve at least a 40 percent overall reduction of emissions by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050.
But the first deadline is set to come on 2025, when the most carbon intensive or “dirtiest” buildings—or 20 percent of the total buildings targeted—will be expected to reduce their emissions according to formulas set by the city.
Those who do not comply face fines, with the maximum penalty being the difference between a building’s annual emissions limit and its actual emissions multiplied by $268.
How can building owners reduce their emissions?
The first step is to perform an energy audit, which is an assessment of a building’s energy-using systems and equipment and which are now required for buildings once every ten years. Heating, cooling and lighting systems are typically the biggest culprits. But in some cases, simple operational changes, like setting runtime schedules and temperature controls, can result in energy savings at no cost. Other characteristics of a building to consider are its insulation, windows, and rooftops. These are all potential sources of heat or cool air loss, which can translate into wasted energy use. Another law passed under the Climate Mobilization Act requires the installation of solar and green roofs on new buildings and those undergoing major renovations.
Owners do not need to do all of this by themselves. The NYC Retrofit Accelerator was launched in 2015 to advise building owners free of cost. The team can help building owners get started on an energy audit, connect them with qualified contractors, help them find financing, and train building staff to ensure that buildings run efficiently. Phil Ortiz, a spokesman for the Mayor’s Offices of Sustainability and Resiliency, tells Gothamist that so far more than 5,000 buildings have been served by the City’s Retrofit Accelerator and Community Retrofit programs.
Will building owners be able to afford to pay for these upgrades?
The city has adopted a popular financing program called Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) that is specifically designed to help fund the installation of of renewable energy systems or energy efficiency renovations. Under PACE, which originated in Berkeley, California, owners can take out low-interest loans, which they can repay over time through their property tax bills. The term of the loans, up to 30 years, is designed to give property owners time to recoup savings from their energy efficient investments. Eligibility guidelines are expected to be released this fall.
All told, the city is estimating the cumulative cost to building owners for meeting the caps to be more than $4 billion.
Who will enforce these new laws?
A new agency called the Office of Building Energy and Emissions Performance is currently being staffed within the city’s Department of Buildings. Designed to be up and running by the beginning of 2020, the office will collect data, certify compliance as well as issue fines. In addition, an advisory board, with members appointed by the mayor and the city council, will issue recommendations on the best ways to implement and enforce the new laws.
What are the criticisms of the legislation?
One of the biggest complaints is that the law exempts buildings with affordable housing, including those owned by the New York Housing Authority. That winds up being a significant number: residential buildings over 25,000 square feet that have at least one affordable unit make up half of all the large buildings in New York City.
“If the goal of the bill is carbon reduction, you’re taking half the buildings off the table,” said Jordan Barowitz, a spokesman for The Durst Organization, which has been outspoken about the cost of the climate change initiative being borne by owners of office and market-rate residential buildings.
The reason for the omission is that city lawmakers were worried that landlords might pass on the costs of upgrades to tenants in the form of rent increases that could in some cases, destabilize units. But the new rent laws, which passed in June after the Climate Mobilization Act, rein in the amounts that landlords can claim in capital investments for rent increases, and destabilization is no longer an option.
“We understand the constraints and the reasons why rent-regulated housing was dealt with the way that it was,” Lindsay Robbins, a director for strategy and implementation at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Citylab. “But that is such a huge swath of the multi-family buildings in this city, and it is a sector that we really want to see get the benefits of energy efficiency.”
Other concerns expressed by Durst and others in the real estate industry have been that the law unfairly penalizes density and intensity of use. In other words, empty buildings would naturally rate more efficient that those that are fully occupied with energy-hogging tenants.
But Chambers said that the city is planning to come up with benchmarks that take these factors into account. Buildings will be measured against ones of similar size and occupancy, he said. The city will also take into account if a building uses renewable energy.
How does my office or residential building stack up?
The city has partnered with New York University to create an interactive energy and water efficiency map that includes six years of data at more than 20,000 of the largest buildings across New York’s five boroughs. The website, which will be updated as more data comes in, is an easy-to-use visualization tool which allows New Yorkers to identify buildings with large emissions, which are typically correlated with size and age. Users can also type in addresses to get detailed energy and water use statistics, including in some cases, an energy type breakdown, and whether or not the building meets the 2025 and 2030 criteria for greenhouse gas emissions.
Below is a snapshot of the greenhouse gas emissions for the Empire State Building. Based on data from 2017, the nearly 3 million-square-foot building, which was built in 1930, gives off 5.98 kilograms of carbon dioxide per square foot (kgCO2/ft2). That currently meets the 2025 limit of 8.46, but come 2030, the owner will have to reduce emissions to 4.53.
This story is part of the Covering Climate Now initiative by the Columbia Journalism Review.