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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Climate Action Meets The Piecemeal Problem

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

February 04, 2019

Meeting NYC's legal mandate to cut its carbon footprint 80% by 2050 is a tall — and essential — order. While 2050 gets closer every day, the full suite of detailed policies, laws, regulations and market transformations needed to meet the 80x50 remain substantially incomplete. It's been a decade since the release of Mayor Bloomberg's Greener Greater Building Plan and the phased-in ban on burning heavy fuel oil for heating buildings has likely been the most effective carbon cutting tool to date, but that still leaves much to do that will entail complex political and technical effort.

I've written before about City Council bills that would require existing buildings to renovate and retrofit buildings to achieve levels of energy efficiency that 80x50 demands. As of this writing, another version of the bill, now designated Intro 1253, had lengthy hearings in December 2018 before the Committee on Environmental Protection, but how the many challenging technical, financial and residential tenant protection issues will be resolved is unknown. What is known is that retrofit decisions and deadlines, as well as the basic metrics for measuring building energy and carbon outputs have no off-the-shelf answers. They have to be discovered or invented and their specifics hammered out — or not. All that can be said with confidence is that the City will not meet its 80x50 goals unless the energy appetite of its built environment changes in big ways and this means both more efficient uses of fuel and electricity along with a shift to fuel and electricity sources that are zero, net-zero or ultra-low carbon.

New York City Council Chamber
Photo by Emil Cohen of the New York City Council chamber ceiling murals, depicting civic virtues

Just a month after the Intro 1253 hearing, the Committee on Environmental Protection held hearings on an array of bills that focused on the potential of using the City's rooftops for installing solar panels and planting "green roofs". The bills would create specific musts rather than a menu of mays. (As an aside, "green roof" legislation aims for benefits that are not specifically tied to energy use, such as limiting the impact on the City's stressed waste water management infrastructure or growing edibles, so a comparison with energy retrofit bills is not exact.) Still, the City's venerable, voluntary and low-cost "cool roof" program has been quite a success, while it's "green roof" program which helps defray installation costs, has completed a mere 25 projects since its inception in 2011. At the January 2019 hearings, the importance of PV and "green roof" obligations were discussed in detail, but not in coordination with other actions that are likely to become requirements if a building energy retrofit bill becomes law.

By the time I left the hearing, I was worried. Zeal and the desire to "do something now" could be getting ahead of the grinding work of passing legislation that tackles the comprehensive need to upgrade the energy efficiency and decarbonize the fuel supply of our entire building stock.

This hearing raised a vivid and discomforting question for me: is drafting many laws, each with a specific focus and set of requirements, the path to climate action success? Here's the thing: however well-intentioned and well-drafted any one bill might be, the probability seems low that a bevy of bills will fortuitously add up to a coherent 80x50 policy to provide building owners, tenants and financial lenders with a coherent platform from which to launch rational, green choices that will add to the public good.

A common and cynical metaphor applied to the legislative process is "sausage making", but that's not the grind troubling me here. Rather, it's the piecemeal problem, where in the 80x50 context, "the road to hell is paved with good intention". Despite the green blueprints issued by the de Blasio Administration — One City Built to Last and New York City's Roadmap to 80x50 — after five years in office there's something of a dearth of initiatives with outcomes. One highlight has been the installation of 11 megawatts of rooftop PV on municipal buildings, with another 30 megawatts in the works. In contrast, another Administration climate program, the voluntary Building Energy Challenge, has just 100 participating buildings (per Administration testimony back in December), so the need for legally requiring building energy upgrades, particularly for existing buildings, is indisputable.

Already in 2019, with a term-limits, New York City's election cycle, is starting to gear up for Mayoral and City Council races in 2021. It is not difficult to imagine that this election cycle could induce a scattershot of well-meaning climate and energy bills in the City Council until the elections. It's no secret that Corey Johnson, the Council's current Speaker is interested in running for Mayor and that New Yorkers will be on the lookout for candidates who have bragging rights about their own version of a Green New Deal. The immediate risk posed by this hard-wired election cycle is not sausage-making so much as a piecemeal path that leads to a mish-mash of mandates (with all their associated compliance costs measured in both time and money) instead of leading to New York's 80x50 goal. This would mean failing to do what's needed for fending off a worst-case climate disruption future. To cite Benjamin Franklin, "Never confuse motion with action."

Here's my wish list: one comprehensive bill for cutting the carbon footprint of existing buildings while making life better for owners and occupants alike. It's also a way to boost green businesses and local employment. Legislative language should establish energy performance outcomes but should not be prescriptive in terms of the specific actions every building owner and manager must take. Will that be easy? No, but it will be something which really matters and that ought to focus the minds and wills of legislative drafters and all those who have skin in this game.

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