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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Memories of Next Summer

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

August 26, 2008

Photos of fashionable women wrapped in shawls on steamy summer days in NYC make sense to me. They are prepared for cold offices, colder conference rooms and icy shops and subway cars. But if shawls were 2008's hot weather trend, we've got a problem. The need to anticipate arctic conditions indoors is both weird and a sign of profound failure.

Equally odd in these energy-conscious times is a New York Times story on Con Ed's efforts to build new electric substations around town to keep up with growing power demand. These substations don't come cheap; a new facility in the Bronx cost $300 million to build and Con Ed has plans to spend $6 billion by 2017 for additional ones. How unfashionable! What will Con Ed spend by 2017 on reducing our demand for energy and improving the efficiency of the systems we have now? The article does not say. Instead, the Times focuses on how community opposition to hosting substations makes such construction difficult and more costly for the utility, but makes no mention of the City's goal of cutting its carbon emissions 30% by 2030 or potential strategies to rein in energy demand to lower overall consumption and the inevitability of needing more substations. Today, news about our energy infrastructure shouldn't read like an electric utility's press release.

Today, we know about the perils of climate change and the sky-high cost of energy, but these stories demonstrate that in some important ways we're still behaving as if it were a retro carbon-carefree era. The good news is that at the same time our thinking and our commitments are shifting to the realities right ahead of us. Since climate policy should be just as creative as fashion, let's preview some of the hottest new ideas about urban sustainability.

SEQRA and Climate Change

A major consequence of the US Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA (127 S. Ct. 1438, April 2, 2007), holding that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant under the terms of the Clean Air Act, was to give states and cities a firmer basis for controlling this major contributor to global warming. Despite the EPA's failure to promulgate CO2 emissions regulations, civic, professional and environmental activists have been developing far-reaching ideas for advancing climate policy and greenhouse gas rules at the sub-federal level.

New York's Municipal Arts Society (MAS), with the input of a working group drawn from diverse expert arenas, is circulating a working draft of "SEQRA and Climate Change". SEQRA is New York State's decades-old environmental review statute. As a major tool for assessing the environmental impact of a wide array of proposed actions, inclusion of provisions for assessing the climate impact of a project's greenhouse gas emissions makes good sense. SEQRA and Climate Change identifies the value of this kind of review in helping government agencies, project sponsors and the public to understand the climate consequences of a proposed action "and will help address future impacts related to the largest actions taken in New York State in the land-use, energy, industrial transportation and other sectors." This working draft sets out a detailed framework for analyzing climate change in an environmental impact statement under SEQRA and it is compatible with the goals of PlaNYC 2030.

As Mayor Bloomberg said when describing the impetus for his plan, "We soon realized that you can't formulate a land use plan without thinking about transportation and you can't think about transportation without thinking about air quality. You can't think about air quality without thinking about energy and you certainly can't think about energy — or any of this — without thinking about global warming". This rightly puts land use and public policy front and center of State and City climate efforts.

It would not be a great stretch for the New York City's own Environmental Quality Review law to adopt analogous requirements, nor would it be the first time in the U.S. that environmental reviews were expanded to incorporate climate impact considerations. The MAS report builds on leadership in Massachusetts, California, and Seattle Washington where analysis of climate impacts is a routine part of public review and approval. Presently, the MAS is circulating its report among experts, civic and political leaders, seeking their support for making this kind of analysis an integral part of State and City environmental reviews.

Greening the Zoning Resolution

Another venerable body of rules with a pervasive impact on urban land use and development — which has climate ramifications that are just beginning to be considered — is the New York City Zoning Resolution. It was last thoroughly overhauled in 1961; from a climate and environmental perspective, 1961 is pre-history. Now, attorneys from the New York City Bar Association's Land Use, Planning & Zoning Committee have convened a working group of architects, engineers, city planners, environmental attorneys and activists, as well as representatives from grass roots community groups to brainstorm and craft an idea menu for bringing the Zoning Resolution into the 21st century.

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