New York’s iconic skyline is about to get greener

Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a new mandate on building efficiency.

A man takes a selfie with him and the New York City skyline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Julio Cortez
A man takes a selfie with him and the New York City skyline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Buildings are some of the biggest energy users — and source of greenhouse gas emissions — in the country. And New York City has a lot of them.

That’s why a new initiative, announced by the mayor’s office on Thursday, requiring New York City building owners to dramatically reduce their fossil fuel use, specifically for heating and hot water, could play a key role in the city’s efforts to address climate change.

“Time is not on our side,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “We must shed our buildings’ reliance on fossil fuels here and now.”

The plan, which will be enacted via legislation from Council Member Costa Constantinides, places limits on the amount of fossil fuels used in buildings over 25,000 square feet. According to the city, “fossil fuels used for heat and hot water in buildings are the city’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions,” coming to 42 percent of the city’s total emissions.

The plan is estimated to reduce emissions by 7 percent overall, the equivalent of removing 900,000 cars from the road annually. Natural gas use will be reduced 14 percent and home heating oil will be reduced 20 percent, the city estimates.

In order to meet the targets, the city expects buildings will have to replace hot water heaters, boilers, roofs, and windows. If they don’t, there will be penalties: Beginning in 2030, buildings over 30,000 square feet could pay $60,000 a year for exceeding their fossil fuel limits. A million-square-foot building could pay up to $2 million.

“Rent regulated” buildings will have targets set in 2020, as the city undergoes “reform of rent regulation,” it said. That plan will prevent building owners from passing on the cost of renovations to tenants.

While the penalties may be, as the city described them, “steep,” in some ways, it’s a wonder that more buildings haven’t already made these investments. Other efficiency programs, including the Energy Department’s Better Buildings initiative, have shown dramatic returns on investment in efficiency. Since 2011, $4.2 billion has provided energy savings that will save $8 billion over the next 18 years.

The Better Buildings initiative is housed in the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office, which both the White House and Congress have targeted for deep budget cuts. The White House proposed cutting $1.4 billion from the office, 70 percent below FY16. Under the House plan, funding for the department would be cut in half. It’s not clear how the Better Buildings initiative, which partners with major businesses as well as state and local governments, would fare.

New York was among the cities that announced new commitments to greenhouse gas emissions reductions after President Donald Trump said the United States would leave the historic Paris climate accord, in which nearly every country in the world agreed to reduce emissions in an effort to restrict global warming to less than 3.6°F (2°C).

“No matter what happens in Washington, we will not shirk our responsibility to act on climate in our own backyard,” de Blasio said.

The plan will have health benefits as well as helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, supporters said.

“Today’s announcement by Mayor de Blasio will improve air quality in New York City, while also reducing a major source of the City’s carbon pollution that drives climate change,” Jeff Seyler from the American Lung Association said in a statement. “This program will provide relief for the millions of New Yorkers who suffer from lung diseases, as well as demonstrate much-needed leadership in addressing the health impacts of climate change.”