Cities - 25/September/2019

New York legislates to end era of dirty big buildings

City achieves global first with aggressive retroactive climate rules for building stock

New York City (NYC), with its iconic Manhattan skyline, has passed the world’s most far-reaching emissions legislation for existing large buildings. The plan is to cap carbon emissions and impose fines on laggards. Supporters of the law, which took effect on 17 May 2019, hope it will become a model that can be exported to cities worldwide.

The ground-breaking dirty buildings law, more formally known as Local Law No 97 of 2019, is part of the city’s Climate Mobilisation Act, a suite of ten bills that is a key anchor of the NYC Green New Deal and designed to help the city comply with the carbon dioxide reduction conditions of the Paris Climate Agreement. The new law requires owners of existing residential and commercial buildings of more than 25,000 square feet to cut aggregate emissions by 40% by 2030 and by 80% by 2050.

The law’s benchmark year is 2005 so buildings that have already made strides towards modern energy efficiency get credit for their efforts. If they do not meet the caps, building owners will face significant annual fines starting in 2024. Fines will be $268 for each tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted over a limit set according to ten categories of buildings.

“The era of dirty and inefficient buildings is nearing its end,” says Mark Chambers, director of the mayor’s office of sustainability. “Retrofitting buildings to make them cleaner reduces pollution, conserves energy and saves money.” Costa Constantinides, the city council member who sponsored the bill, adds: “To real estate developers who think this is about setting up a new revenue stream, we don’t want your money — we want your carbon.” He continues: “Even though we have a reality TV actor in the White House, many of us live in the real world and realise the serious threats of climate change.”

One high-profile backer of the law is the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, a Democrat running to replace Donald Trump in the White House in the 2020 election. De Blasio pulled no punches during a rally in May 2019 inside Trump Tower, a glitzy 58-storey skyscraper on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and the site of Trump’s private home and head office of his family’s property empire. “These buildings are a big part of the problem and we’re making it very clear — it doesn’t matter who you are. Even the president of the US has to abide by the law of this city,” said de Blasio.

The Trump Organisation, which declined to comment, owns eight luxury skyscrapers in New York. The skyscrapers release about 27,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases yearly, equivalent to the emissions from 5800 cars, says de Blasio’s office. The company could face $2.1 million in combined annual fines if it does not comply with the new law, the office says. The city has been calculating emissions from individual big buildings for several years. ...


This article is part of our special series looking indepth at how cities hold the key to the energy transition. All stories in the series will appear on our website and in the latest edition of our magazine to be published at the beginning of October 2019.

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