Sallan Torchlight Photo ©amazon pixels


Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Can't Wait

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

June 26, 2008

2008 will be a landmark year in American politics, but not for federal climate legislation. The springtime follies in the Senate will mean we must wait until next year, or perhaps longer, for any comprehensive national law. Until then, cities will remain the leaders and the laboratories in fighting climate change.

So, where do we stand today? Along with the deeply divisive conflicts within the political establishment and among industries and interest groups over national climate legislation, self-described "libertarian paternalist" behavioral economists like Thaler and Sunstein (the latter also a self-described "informal occasional advisor" to Barack Obama)1 maintain that inertia, overconfidence and loss aversion, make change, whether personal or political, hard to do. From this vantage point, ambitious action on climate change, or indeed almost any action at all in Washington, could remain beyond our immediate grasp, regardless of who wins the Presidential race. In light of such prospects, Thaler and Sunstein recommend policies that can "nudge" us in the right direction.2 At the same moment, climate scientists are sounding the alarm about how fast the world is warming and the oceans are rising. They tell us that we cannot wait — and that's where thoughtful and thought — through climate policy action at an urban level could be the nudge we need now.

Out of this ferment progress will emerge — and some errors too — while we learn how to cut our carbon footprint, to measure our successes and calculate the costs. By acting methodically and starting now, cities, scholars and professionals could amass real time, real world numbers on both the cost of energy and the cost of using less of it. In turn, this information could be deployed as a front line tool in the national climate policy arena. In this precise way, urban initiatives could silence the paralyzing mantra of climate protection versus economic growth and the savage attacks of politicians like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe who protest that climate legislation is a "tax on the poor", and the biggest government burden since FDR's New Deal.3

Today, plaNYC 2030 is more than one year old and several of its key climate components are taking their first steps.4 The Mayor has pledged to shrink the city government carbon footprint 30% by the year 2017 and the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability is looking into how to get there; it's more than changing light bulbs. Consider the Energy Efficiency Program, a product of plaNYC development. The City estimates that by improving the energy efficiency of its own buildings its CO2 emissions could be cut by 50-60%. In December 2007, the administration announced several short terms actions and promised to issue a long-term plan by the end of June 2008. It has pledged to conduct base-line energy audits of ten municipal buildings as a pilot for a larger audit program. Audit findings could be invaluable both for the efforts of municipal government as well as the advancement of LEED standards for existing buildings and other high performance building projects outside the LEED protocol. That's the kind of potential impact Mayor Bloomberg calls "leading by example". In September 2008, expect an update on the City's 2007 carbon footprint report. And not to be overlooked, if the City issues an in-depth annual report this fall about Local Law 86, its two-year old green building statute, we'd have an opportunity to learn from the laws on the books.

Don't expect all the findings to be upbeat either in terms of performance or cost. There remains much to be learned about high-performance building design, construction and operations. A 2008 New Buildings Institute report found a disturbingly wide range of energy performance for new LEED-rated projects around the US. While on average, LEED buildings are 25-30% more energy efficient than non-LEED construction, of the 121 buildings in the study, 30% performed better than expected, 25% performed worse than expected, and a few had serious energy consumption problems.

What to make of this? As Sallan Snapshot "Sustainability In Commercial Buildings — Bridging The Gap From Design To Operations" argued,

Accurate reporting of the actual performance of green buildings is important will help the industry to calibrate its expectations and move towards more consistent results and confidence in projections. Sharing operating results and lessons learned earlier rather than later can avoid repeating potential mistakes as the green buildings movement proceeds.

plaNYC 2030, of course, is more than a directive to our building stock. Trees have been planted, schoolyards are open for play after 3 pm and congestion pricing has gone down to defeat. But these developments cannot predict the degree to which the Plan will succeed because, as Tom Angotti writes, "The real test is whether the ambitious goals of creating a greener and healthier New York will be achieved. That just defies quick fixes and short-term solutions. Essential to Angotti's long-term vision is ramping up grass roots citizen involvement in the elaboration and execution of plaNYC 2030. He urges the City's fifty-nine community boards to host meetings to capture and focus citizen attention and bottom up ideas. At a recent Sallan-sponsored panel on how to shrink New York's carbon footprint, an audience member from Manhattan's Community Board 7 proposed that City government organize a climate competition, with the winning community board achieving the best cuts to its carbon footprint. What a clever idea for capturing bottom up ideas! In addition, as others have argued, plaNYC 2030 and the City's overall economic growth would benefit from adding focus and resources on education and job training for all the work that's entailed in making New York a sustainable city.

plaNYC 2030 is a work in progress and we should expect obstacles, disagreements and some stumbles as it matures. That's standard operating procedure, not an occasion for despair. Shortly, we will post a Sallan Foundation-sponsored research report by the CUNY Building Performance Lab, Decoding the Code.5 It will tackle this question: how can the 2007 City Building Code help meet plaNYC 2030 carbon/energy reduction goals.


  1. “John Cassidy, "Economics: Which Way for Obama?", New York Review of Books, June 12 2008
  2. “Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008 ”
  3. “James Inhofe, "We Don't Need a Climate Tax on the Poor", Wall Street Journal June 3, 2008 ”
  4. “For a full summary of its first year's efforts, see plaNYC Progress Report 2008
  5. “Link to Decoding the Code was added on February 18, 2019 Decoding the Code

December 2022
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat

Stay updated via Twitter, Google + or join our list.

Statue of Liberty armature

We have made Snapshot articles available in .pdf format on Scribd.