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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

"If We Don't Act Now, When? And If We Don't Act, Who Will?"

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

June 29, 2007

I was moved to quote Mayor Bloomberg's stirring challenge to make PlaNYC 2030 a reality in my previous Torchlight column. Now I want to use it as a lodestone for our elected officials and for ourselves. Of the 127 proposals made when the Mayor launched PlaNYC 2030 in April 2007, congestion pricing received the lion's share of media attention but its ill-fated bill died in Albany at the end of the recent legislative session. Maybe it will be revived. Other major elements of the 2030 plan, as currently construed, will also require State legislation. In particular, a call for creation of two new energy authorities that would shift considerable power and revenue to the City carry the weight of great hope but have scant potential for swift action in Albany.

Instead of putting so much of PlaNYC's fate in the hands of the State legislature, let's get moving now on the major pieces of the climate change challenge that New York City can control itself. Since we now know that 79% of the City's carbon footprint is linked to heating, cooling and providing electricity to its buildings, let's direct our might and main to making high performance, super energy-efficient buildings New York's "new normal". It's a tall order for a vertical city, but if we don't succeed we'll have only ourselves to blame. We can already point to a number of outstanding "green buildings", commercial, public and residential in four of the five boroughs, so we already have some real-world experience under our belts.

What we need are more such buildings, and more experience in how to construct, operate and maintain them. And we need enough of these better buildings to have a deep and enduring impact on our overall electricity and fuel consumption at a scale able to deliver on the promise of slashing our GHG emissions by 30% by the year 2030. To make this happen we'll also an improved building code. Although the Building Code changes legislated in June 2007 authorize the Building Department to grant permit fee rebates to projects that incorporate features from a green design menu as well acknowledging the value of cool roofs, these are just a bare beginning. Making New York really sustainable also will call for smart local tax legislation and high performance mandates, in addition to an army of developers, bankers, architects, engineers, designers, contractors and workers to construct and manage this great granite garden of the 21st Century. As buyers and renters we need to demand nothing less.

Why give top billing to green buildings for meeting our GHG reduction goals? Like Willy Sutton once said when asked why he robbed banks, "because that's where the money is." Now we need to say with a similar bluntness (but staying on the right side of the law), PlaNYC 2030 should make high performance building the City's new normal because that's where the climate payoff is. The City already has one high performance building law; Local Law 86 requires new construction and renovations funded with City dollars to meet United States Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards and to incorporate enhanced energy efficient designs into qualifying projects. Local economic benefits should also flow from these requirements as new, greener building products find local markets and demand increases for construction and building maintenance skills erect and operate these high performance structures. The promise of Local Law 86 is to begin transforming markets and leading by example, even if it can't achieve climate-related emission reduction scales on its own. City government is also adding to this carbon-cutting momentum with its "Green Desk" at the Economic Development Corporation, which provides assistance to green firms moving to New York City and to existing firms expanding into the green market.

It's clear from all this ferment that both market transformation and real cuts in the energy demand of our built environment are more than wishful thinking. It's equally clear that New York won't be the only major city to find its way to the high road for cutting carbon by building smart.

For example Berlin, Germany and that city's energy agency manage a program for retrofitting public and private commercial buildings and it's led to a cut in CO2 emissions an average of 26% per project To date, 1,400 buildings have been made so much more energy efficient that they're reducing Berlin's carbon footprint by 60,400 tons a years at a cost of 45 million euros. What's more, these building upgrades cost property owners nothing while providing a total guaranteed savings of 10 million euros. Average payback periods are 8–12 years, with savings beginning immediately due to lower fuel and electric bills. Energy service companies, called ESCOs, perform this work. Typically, ESCOs develop, install and finance projects designed to improve the energy efficiency and maintenance costs for a wide range of facilities. In Berlin, ESCOs bid competitively for the work. ESCOs must guarantee energy savings to the building by deploying innovation, state-of-the-art technology, ideas and value for the money. The winning ESCOs pay upfront for the retrofits and building owners pay them back over an agreed time period.

At the C40 conference hosted by NYC in May 2007, a major announcement by the President Clinton Foundation heralded development of powerful tools to carry out and verify an urban climate policy that relies on a high performance, energy efficient built environment. More specifically, the Clinton Foundation and Microsoft announced a partnership to devise new software tools, pioneered by the climate change advocacy group ICLEI, that will help large cities forge, track and share strategies to reduce GHG emissions. Just like the profound impact made by the Ford assembly line, which standardized 20th Century mass industrial production, this software could create standardized ways for cities to measure GHG; with that ability they will be able to track the effectiveness of their carbon-cutting tools and rules.

While this Microsoft web-based tool to deliver evidence-based climate policy will take some time to develop, NYC should start working today on its next cycle of Building Code upgrades to forge the routine regulatory tools for greening our built environment. This is consistent with the PlaNYC 2030 promise to speed up the cycle for reviewing and revising the Building Code from once every generation to once every three years. At the same time, the City should invest in staff training and, if necessary, increased inspections to make sure that greener building code provisions are fully executed and never ignored. In this way, promises will be kept and any gaps between what's in the Plan and what's on the ground can be sealed shut. Delivering on all these eminently practical tools and rules is within the City's reach and none of them require State legislation.

In keeping with PlanNYC 2030's fertile vision, some high performance, energy efficiency programs are already beginning to bloom. Nine NYC universities announced that they would "lead by example" and cut their GHG emissions by 30% within ten years, far faster than the citywide goal of a 30% cut by the year 2030. The three largest participating universities occupy 38 million square feet of space; that's a lot of room for improvement. The City promises to act an as informational clearing house and to share best practices and develop knowledge that can help all participating universities to meet their targets effectively and efficiently. According to the Mayor's press release, the City has the goal of "improving data logging, installing more modern, efficient, equipment, tuning up equipment that is already in place and improving operations and maintenance practices" in some of its own buildings.

What New York must and can avoid is the Chicago Climate Curse 1, the essence of which is making promises and setting climate targets but finding that GHG emissions are on the rise. From this distance it's hard to say whether the Chicago's current failure springs from false promises, false premises or simply botched implementation, but what's clear is that energy demand hasn't been contained. The Big Apple can do better, but it will take a willingness to spend both financial and serious political capital, and it will take a willingness by citizens, communities, advocates and myriad businesses to try out new ways of doing things. If New York fails to reach its climate goals, we'll all have to look in the mirror to figure out what went wrong.

As Mayor Bloomberg constantly reminds us, he has under one thousand days left in office. His PlaNYC 2030 puts New York on the map as a capital city for combating climate change. It offers 127 ideas for how to do battle. Not every idea is a winner and — since the plan isn't some sacred text — edits, revisions and deletions are all on the table. Nevertheless, there is an urgency to getting the gears engaged and the plan in motion. Scientists say that we have no time to waste in minimizing our carbon footprint.

In this spirit, I call for setting a top priority for PlaNYC 2030 — make high performance buildings the new normal. And I'm offering a winning strategy — draw on the City's own home-grown rules and willing citizens, while attracting economic, creative and technical resources from around the world, to make it happen.

  1. Hawthorne, Michael. Daley's City Not so 'Green'. Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois, (Page 1) 18 June 2007.
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