POLITICS

New York City Charges Ahead With Its Own Green New Deal

The nation's largest city is poised to enact what may be the most ambitious municipal emissions reduction bill in the world.

New York City is gearing up to enact its own version of the Green New Deal with a suite of bills that aim to dramatically slash the city’s planet-warming emissions, create thousands of blue-collar jobs and set the stage for future state and federal climate policies.

The City Council on Thursday plans to announce the Climate Mobilization Act, a package that includes six pieces of legislation grouped in an omnibus bill to be voted on by Earth Day, April 22. It’s the first of what’s expected to be at least two waves of climate-focused legislation this year.

“This is about saving New York City,” Councilman Costa Constantinides, the Queens Democrat leading the effort, said in an interview at his office in his native Astoria, a densely populated immigrant neighborhood choked by car and power plant pollution and bordered by water on two sides. “This is saving the city as we know it.”

The heart of the legislation is a measure requiring buildings of over 25,000 square feet ― the biggest source of carbon pollution in the city ― to install new windows, insulation and other retrofits to become more energy efficient. Starting in 2024, the legislation orders landlords to slash emissions 40% by 2030, and double the cuts by 2050.

If passed, the bill would likely be the largest single legislative mandate to cut climate pollution by any city in the world. The legislation, by one estimate, would create a demand for more than 3,600 jobs construction jobs per year and another 4,400 jobs in maintenance, services and operations, fueled by the sheer magnitude of the investment required to meet the emissions goals.

The full Climate Mobilization Act package goes further. One bill orders the city to complete a study over the next two years on the feasibility of closing all 24 oil- and gas-burning power plants in city limits and replacing them with renewables and batteries. Another establishes a renewable energy loan program. Two more require certain buildings to cover roofs with plants, solar panels, small wind turbines or a mix of the three. The last in this initial bunch tweaks the city’s building code to make it easier to build wind turbines. 

The second round is expected to include a bill creating a new city agency to direct and oversee New York’s adaptation efforts, and a bill mandating all-electric school buses.

It’s the kind of unsexy, technical policymaking to which municipalities ― even those with a gross domestic product big enough to rank among the world’s 20 largest economies ― are limited. The state controls New York City’s rent laws, public transit system and drinking water regulations. Most of the city’s electricity is generated in the suburbs north of the Bronx. New York City’s borders don’t reflect its actual cultural and economic barriers: The metropolitan area sprawls from New Jersey up through Connecticut, meaning major infrastructure projects require the kind of interstate coordination that hinges on federal support.

On those fronts, there’s change afoot. The state budget passed last week included a ban on single-use plastic bags, congestion pricing to reduce automobile traffic and raise money for mass transit improvements, and $500 million for water infrastructure. The state legislature in Albany is set to vote by the summer on the Climate and Communities Protection Act, a historic measure mandating 100% clean electricity and a completely carbon-neutral economy by 2050.  

A new cadre of left-wing Democrats in Washington, led in part by New York’s own Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), is pushing for a national Green New Deal that would ramp up clean energy development, bolster electric vehicle manufacturing and guarantee high-wage jobs raising roads, rebuilding bridges and doing the kind of energy-efficiency work the city’s legislation calls for.

“It really is the beginning of a Green New Deal for New York City,” said Pete Sikora, a senior adviser to the housing and climate justice advocacy group New York Communities for Change. “It’s not everything, but it’s a transformative package.”

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

No Corporate Carve-Outs

The Climate Mobilization Act is already facing fierce backlash, particularly from the powerful real estate lobby that dominates politics in the Big Apple.

As it was, the building emissions bill puts pressure on landlords that they won’t find in any other major metropolis where spaces in glimmering, energy-hungry towers are popular assets for the globetrotting private-jet set. No other city in the world has yet enacted such a policy. Tokyo operates a limited cap-and-trade scheme that allows big buildings to buy and sell pollution permits, but the policy doesn’t require the kind of abrupt and rapid investments mandated in the New York City bill.

Outright challenging the basis of the bill was never an option. The legislation came from an agreement last August brokered by the nonprofit Urban Green Council between the city’s real estate lobby and grassroots activists that set out a framework for cutting building emissions 80% by the middle of the century. To meet the goal, the agreement outlined a road map for requiring landlords to retrofit old buildings with energy-efficient technologies.

An early draft of the legislation nixed proposals to give extra leeway to New York’s dwindling stock of roughly 990,000 rent-regulated apartments. But the final version unveiled in November surprised activists by not only creating a loophole for rent-regulated units but also going beyond the original Urban Green Council framework to call for cuts to be made roughly twice as fast.

At a marathon hearing in December, the Real Estate Board of New York forged alliances with the city’s hospitals, the Catholic Church and a handful of business-friendly environmental groups to demand carve-outs that would soften the targets and give landlords more leeway in how they meet the goals. REBNY’s senior vice president, Carl Hum, said the bill wasn’t “cognizant of short-term realities.”

If New York City can do it in the complicated city that we’re living in, anyone else should be able to do it. New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson

The Greater New York Hospital Association called the original 2022 start date “extremely problematic” and an “arbitrary timeline” for facilities like those it represents, which stay open 24/7 and require constant lighting and power. The New York League of Conservation Voters complained that the loophole for rent-regulated buildings risked excluding New Yorkers “who would benefit the most” from retrofits.

The final bill pushed the start date back two years and preserved the exemption. For buildings that house even one rent-regulated apartment, this gives them a pass to make modest energy efficiency upgrades that wouldn’t meet the threshold of what’s known under state law as a major capital improvement, which could be legally passed on to tenants in the form of a rent hike of up to 6% a year.

But asked if the legislation would include the loopholes the industry groups requested, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said bluntly: “There are no exemptions.”

The Climate Mobilization Act’s power plant measure is less controversial. The proposal only requires the city to conduct a feasibility study on how, if at all, it could meet electricity demands with solar or wind generation paired with batteries. The bill would affect the 24 plants that ring the city and start burning fuel oil or natural gas when power demands exceed the supply that comes in from gas, nuclear and hydro dam plants outside the city. That’s stoking some concern among energy buyers who already worry about how the city will meet demands once the Indian Point Energy Center nuclear plant in the northern Westchester suburbs closes.

Expanding the bill’s mandate to include buildings smaller than 25,000 square feet will be a significant next challenge. That type of regulation requires considerably more nuance and a delicate approach to sidestep the potential for rent increases or overly burdensome requirements on mom-and-pop property owners.  

Future legislation could take on loftier goals. There’s a plan, promoted by the environmental justice group UPROSE, to open a manufacturing hub for wind energy equipment on the rapidly gentrifying industrial waterfront of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. Then there’s Constantinides’ proposal to close the notorious prison on Rikers Island, in the East River just north of his district, and convert the 413-acre facility into a solar farm and water treatment plant.

What’s missing from the bill is notable. The legislation doesn’t set a 100%  renewable energy target for New York City beyond the existing rules for city-owned buildings ― something the Big Apple is likely to face greater pressure to do since the Chicago City Council voted Wednesday to adopt such a measure. Nor does the bill set policies to deal with the effects of climate change already baked in, such as potentially catastrophic sea-level rise by the end of the century. Manhattan, largely an elevated island of solid bedrock, faces less of a threat than the outer boroughs like Queens and Brooklyn, situated on a porous glacial moraine. 

Yet emissions reduction plans are “just less disruptive” than new zoning laws and potential rules barring construction in low-lying waterfront areas, said John Englander, an oceanographer and president of the International Sea Level Rise Institute.

“It’s good to reduce emissions,” he said. “But you’ve got to break this thinking that New York City going to zero emissions will slow sea-level rise.” 

If You Can Make It In New York…

Like much of climate policy, the ultimate test of the Climate Mobilization Act is whether it will influence what happens on the national and global levels.

But New York City isn’t the only place charging ahead in the Trump era, when many still debate mounting evidence that shows the planet headed toward cataclysmic average temperatures.

In Los Angeles, the City Council passed a motion requiring the nation’s second-largest city to draft a Green New Deal plan to match the resolution Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced in February. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of cities pledging to generate all their electricity from renewables doubled. At least 13 states have passed or are considering setting 100% clean-electricity targets, according to a report last month by the consultancy EQ Research.

The Green New Deal movement is animating local elections, too. Adrian Rivera-Reyes, a 26-year-old biologist and socialist running to be Philadelphia’s first openly gay councilman, is making a “municipal Green New Deal a cornerstone” of his campaign. In Seattle, Shaun Scott, another socialist running for city council, published an op-ed last month declaring, “It’s Time for Seattle’s Green New Deal.”

“If New York City can do it in the complicated city that we’re living in, anyone else should be able to do it,” Johnson said.

A man passes a building in the Rockaways still under construction a year after the disastrous 2012 Superstorm Sandy. 
A man passes a building in the Rockaways still under construction a year after the disastrous 2012 Superstorm Sandy. 

It’s easy rhetoric to latch on to. As a concept, the Green New Deal is the only proposal that matches the scope of a climate crisis Americans are increasingly worried about, as hurricanes, wildfires and flooding routinely set records. The slogan is catchy and resonant, harking back to Great Depression-era programs that built much of the nation’s grandest infrastructure and created safeguards against abject poverty. The policy goals attributed to the Green New Deal are overwhelmingly popular, with one poll in December finding support from 81% of voters, including 64% of Republicans and 57% of conservative Republicans.

But it’s not yet policy. The resolution Ocasio-Cortez and Markey released in February was a statement of purpose, outlining the core tenets of what future Green New Deal legislation should include. The document was more politics than policy. It included what critics called a wish list of progressive reforms that its authors reckon could appeal to enough disparate, downtrodden demographics to build a mass movement of working-class voters, energized enough to counter opposition from deep-pocket industries with the most to lose from decarbonization, such as oil, gas and coal companies.

But the resolution sketched out a clear enough picture of a Green New Deal to give municipal lawmakers a sense of what to plan for.

In that sense, New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act fits the mold, said Greg Carlock, the architect of the Green New Deal blueprint that the think tank Data for Progress published last year.

“It is the responsibility of city councils and leadership to figure out what authority they have and what resources they have to start their share of the mobilization,” Carlock said. “It sounds like this legislation in New York City is precisely that.”

A progressive approach to climate change in New York is likely to ripple far beyond the five boroughs.

Last January, Mayor Bill de Blasio sued five major oil companies over infrastructure damage from sea level rise and extreme weather. A federal judge tossed the suit in July, but California and seven other big states signed on to the city’s appeal in November.

The de Blasio administration began the process last year of divesting $5 billion in fossil fuel assets from the city’s pension funds, a move other cities quickly followed.

Last month, the mayor, who is flirting with a run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, announced his most ambitious climate proposal yet, a $10 billion plan to add two city blocks’ worth of land to lower Manhattan and create a flood zone protecting the physical epicenter of global finance.

That’s “a laudable and important goal,” said Constantinides.

“My son is nine right now; he’s going to be an adult in 2050, when all this is going on. God willing he lives to the nice, old age of 90 or above, he’ll ring in 2100,” Constantinides said. “We can’t let it be ‘Hunger Games’ or ‘Mad Max.’”

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