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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Knocking At Our Door

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

December 28, 2007

In consideration of where we've been recently and where we might be going, it seems right to start with Al Gore's urgent call when accepting the Nobel Prize for his work on climate change. "We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency — a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here". Fitting for the occasion, Gore's scope was global, but his certainty that we have no time to waste applies equally at the urban scale. It's also true that what we do, we have to do well; there is scant time and few resources for half-measures or a willful indifference about learning from what we do.

Combating climate change is an undertaking without precedent. This undertaking will dislocate old patterns and habits while requiring innovations that may still be imperfectly understood. By shifting focus from the planetary to the urban, we can see what this dislocation and the learning curve look like from the ground up. A quick recap of New York City's climate and sustainability record for 2007 is a good place to start. This Torchlight singles out some pivotal promises made last year and seeks evidence of forward movement.

The year started well with the adoption of the rules for carrying out the City's high performance building legislation, Local Law 86. At least two City-funded facilities, an Office of Emergency Planning in Brooklyn and the Corona Maintenance Shop have been certified by the US Green Building Council (out of a City-wide total of 15 projects that received LEED certification by September 2007). That's good, but it's neither possible to say what else is in the Local Law 86 pipeline nor how well the completed projects are performing, especially in terms of their carbon footprints. Access to both project pipeline and performance data are of the essence not only to the assessment of Local Law 86 but to delivering on the City's biggest sustainability promise, Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030. With its ambitions for a vibrant metropolis of nine million people that will slash its carbon emissions 30% by the year 2030, every piece of the policy landscape has to be mapped, tracked and coordinated.

PlaNYC 2030, launched in April 2007, already has lead to admirable commitments by City government, the major universities that call New York home, the Housing Authority and the Board of Education to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. City government and the universities have pledged to fast track their efforts and shrink their carbon footprints — 30% by 2015, twice as fast as the rest of the City's building stock. Not to be outdone, Governor Spitzer announced the 15 x 15 policy to cut State carbon dioxide emissions 15% by the year 2015 and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) launched a sustainability initiative to shrink its "ecological footprint", although the latter has set no numerical target.

Reports from sources as diverse as the labor-environmental NYC Apollo Alliance and a McKinsey report written for the corporate Conference Board see market transforming economic development and job growth potential as inherent in this green growth. In a similar vein, a report done for Governor Spitzer sees "cleantech" as the state's best bet for a new engine of economic growth. Let's not forget the importance of giving PlaNYC 2030 real staying power. Mayors come and go, but the City Council has passed the "NYC Climate Protection Act" that establishes an office responsible for implementing PlaNYC 2030 and meeting its long-term goals, including the 30% CO2 cut. This makes good sense.

Big plans and good sense need sturdy standards for guidance and standardization as well as measurement and verification. The United States Green Building Council, creator of the LEED rating system, made great progress in 2007 when it required that all LEED-rated projects undertake commissioning of building energy project systems, meet certain energy performance standards and achieve two more rating points from a menu of energy performance optimization strategies.

These are among the most important sustainability promises made in 2007. Now, let's turn to how they've been kept. Plan 2030 offered a list of 127 initiatives but its forward momentum was immediately channeled into the fight over congestion pricing. Right now, the Mayor has nothing to show for it. What's worse, the congestion pricing dust up has all but obscured the remaining 126 goals in the media and public awareness. Other parts of the Plan for example, call for the creation by State law of two City energy authorities responsible for some heavy lifting on cutting the City's carbon emissions. The City may be rethinking this issue given the difficulty of getting legislation through Albany, and instead refocusing on what it can accomplish on its own.

Formulation and roll out of an energy strategy for New York City, as well as real enforcement of the State energy code should be at the top of 2008's to-do list. Looking ahead, tracking the progress of the 2030 Plan should be made easier and it should be fully web-accessible. Since PlaNYC 2030's launch in April 2007, the City's website has provided no updates on this crucial-work-in-progress. Stay tuned.

Another promise made that's becoming a work-in-progress is "greening" the City's Building Code. Plan 2030 promises to speed up revisions of this code from once a generation to once every three years. Although the 2007 code revisions could at best be called "lite-green", and another end-of-year revision makes New York the first city in the country with rules for the use of micro-turbines as a clean on-site power source, the 2010 round of revisions could go much further in nailing down how the City can cut its carbon emissions 30% by 2030. One smart step would be development of performance-based standards for construction and building systems. New York City is now home to 15 LEED certified buildings and has some 150 projects that have applied for LEED certification. As well, several outstanding high performance buildings developed outside the LEED system, such as Battery Park City's high-performance, high-rise apartments or the New York Times headquarters opened last year. And that is in addition to the eight buildings that received State green buildings tax benefits. It is important to recognize that there is substantial real world experience to learn from now. This real world experience provides a platform for delivering on a technically effective and cost-efficient green building code promise.

As many Torchlight columns have observed, good public policy and smart use of public dollars requires that evidence be required, collected, analyzed and published. On this score too, NYC has a long way to go. The City's Local Law 86 web pages offer no updated information and the PlaNYC 2030 web pages read as if were still April 2007. You can click and "learn how we plan to meet our goals". That's fine, but where can you find out what has happened to date and what the City has learned from this experience, however visionary and well intentioned? You won't find out on the City's website, so for now, you'll have to rely on your clippings files, your website bookmarks and your grapevines.

The need to green our infrastructure, with high priorities on mass transit, electric power generation and the combined sewer system was underlined by the subway floods of last summer. Rising groundwater levels will also imperil our infrastructure and cannot be ignored. There is no question that upgrading all these systems will require the mobilizing of technical ingenuity and capital investments in addition to improved routine maintenance. Prudence dictates that planning, design and investment in each of these infrastructure systems should also incorporate climate adaptation components. For instance, the City's subway system needs pumps and public address systems that can handle severe storms because it's likely that more severe wet weather will be part of the City's future. Among ideas worth looking into are innovative siting of shrubs and plantings as well as reconfiguration of subway entrances to capture storm water runoff.

The City and the State continue to be shortsighted on the land use and development front. For example, the City's zoning rules, which play a fundamental part in governing land use, should discourage new development in low-lying areas that are likely to be subject to storm damage and coastal flooding. Future uses of State-owned land are another horizon for smarter sustainability strategies. The power of zoning and land use planning are superb instruments to encourage high performance, low carbon impact construction.

A perfect example of how far we have come, but how far we still have to go is the Metropolitan Transit Authority's call for the development of the West Side's Hudson Yards. The MTA tips its hat to sustainability and energy efficiency without requiring that this development be carried out to the highest green building and energy efficiency standards. The Authority's "request for proposal" stipulated that developers must meet LEED Silver ratings for buildings and that the overall project has to be environmentally sustainable.

But the MTA should have aimed higher by stipulating that the winning developers go for a LEED Gold rating as well as earn an additional LEED point by commit to measurement and verification of the project they build by providing for the ongoing accountability of energy consumption over time. The MTA is a creature of the State and the City; both the Governor and Mayor name its Board members. These are elected officials with forward-thinking sustainability and climate policies. They claim that they are leading by example and transforming the environmental marketplace, but there is no excuse for playing second fiddle when it comes to delivering the goods.

Since this Torchlight opened with Al Gore's Nobel Prize speech, let's end with it too: "The great Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, wrote, 'One of these days, the younger generation will come knocking at my door.' The future is knocking at our door right now... We have everything we need to get started, save perhaps political will, but political will is a renewable resource."

Sallan | Torchlight | Knocking At Our Door | Nancy Anderson, Ph.D. | Comments

Sallan Readers weigh in

January 25, 2008

As someone keenly interested in the City's sustainability efforts, I was grateful for your Torchlight column "Knocking At Our Door." A year-end appraisal of progress toward key plaNYC 2030 goals was badly needed.

It prompts me to wonder why the City itself doesn't periodically share this kind of appraisal with its citizens. Its sustainability goals, ambitious to begin with, become only more urgent as climate change accelerates. The citywide collaborations required to achieve those goals require the full and free flow of information. As your column says, "... every piece of the policy landscape has to be mapped, tracked and coordinated." While doing this is no small task, managing information about policy implementation is not itself enough. Beyond information lie synthesis and insight. They're not to be found on the City's snazzy plaNYC 2030 web site. Exemplary as a roll-out of sustainability goals, that site devotes only one page to subsequent "News & Events," and that page is no more than an online filing cabinet for press releases. Most of them tell us that Mayor Bloomberg did this, Mayor Bloomberg did that. All of them put a shiny face on the news.

Those releases are useful, of course, but hey! Consider: Seems unlikely that a venture as ambitious and unprecedented as plaNYC can be going altogether smoothly. What aren't we being told?; Even motivated readers who try to synthesize all those press releases are left yearning to know, "But how's it going? What's proving difficult? Any surprises? What are you learning about what it will take to achieve sustainability?"

Presumably, the Bloomberg administration, so admirably results-oriented, has been rigorously assessing its performance on the sustainability front. It can use its plaNYC site to periodically share those assessments. And it can use that site to candidly tell New Yorkers the truth -- not only about successes but about inevitable struggles and failures, so we can all learn from them as this historic venture evolves, and so we fully understand the nature of the challenges entailed and can fully appreciate what the City does achieve.

Eventually, the web site could include an open forum for running dialogues with citizens on particularly difficult challenges. Would this actually prove productive? Maybe; maybe not. A demo could test the concept; let's find out.

The basic vision is this: a site that serves as a dynamic communication tool for years to come and treats the public as a partner; an authoritative, current, candid resource that is the must-visit site for everyone concerned with New York City's progress toward sustainability.

Will it be easy for the City to deliver what I'm asking for? No. But promoting a shared, reality-based understanding of what we're all engaged in for the long term sure seems worth a lot of effort, starting now.

Christine Van Lenten

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