NYC's Plan to Protect Climate Targets Big Oil and Trump Tower
August 22, 2018
Alexander C. Kaufman / The Huffington Post
Drastic climate action in New York City could include laws to mandate dramatic energy-use cuts in big buildings -- by far the largest source of Manhatan's air pollution. This historic move could set a new standard for cities worldwide. On the target list: Trump Tower. Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio and the city are suing five major oil companies over infrastructure damage from encroaching climate change. The mayor also plans to divest roughly $5 billion in fossil fuel investments from the city's five pension plans.
New York City Just Took Historic Step Toward
Cutting Its Top Source of Climate Pollution
Legislation focuses on big buildings
could set a new standard for cities around the world
Alexander C. Kaufman / The Huffington Post
NEW YORK (August 19, 2018) -- A top New York City lawmaker announced a bill Monday to mandate dramatic energy use cuts in big buildings, by far the biggest source of carbon dioxide, in a historic move that could set a new standard for cities around the world.
The legislation plans to require the city's largest buildings to reduce energy use by 20 percent by 2030, as well as to set a framework for increasing the cuts by 40 percent to 60 percent by 2050. Combined with projected increases for renewable energy capacity on the power grid, the city could reduce its climate-warming emissions by 80 percent. Electricity and heating in buildings make up nearly 70 percent of the city's climate pollution, with luxury towers producing the lion's share.
"The low-hanging fruit is gone," City Councilman Costa Constantinides, a Queens legislator who leads the council's Committee on Environmental Protection, said Monday morning on the steps of City Hall. "If we are going to make a real impact on climate change, it's going to be on buildings."
The legislation, which is not yet complete, would make the nation's largest and most economically influential metropolis among the first major cities in the world to mandate strict retrofits on existing buildings to reduce planet-warming emissions.
The proposals outlined in the bill came from an unprecedented first agreement, released last week, between environmental groups, affordable housing advocates, unions and the city's real estate lobby on a set of policies to slash buildings' carbon pollution 80 percent by 2050.
The only thing similar to the proposal is a cap-and-trade policy in Tokyo that allows big commercial landlords in the Japanese capital to buy and sell a limited and shrinking number of CO2 pollution permits, said Russell Unger, executive director of the Urban Green Council. Besides that, the activists and industry representatives his group convened to negotiate the proposal only had the last set of New York laws to upgrade green building requirements to use as legal guidelines.
"Nobody has done this in the world," Pete Sikora, a senior adviser at the grassroots nonprofit New York Communities for Change, said ahead of Monday's press conference. "This is new stuff."
Climate policies tend to ripple far beyond New York's five boroughs. The city is a financial and cultural giant with a gross domestic product big enough to rank among the world's top 20 economies.
In January, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a city lawsuit against five major oil companies over infrastructure damage from climate change; New York became one of the biggest municipalities to mount such a legal challenge.
The mayor also unveiled plans to divest roughly $5 billion in fossil fuel investments from the city's five pension plans. Other cities quickly followed suit, and, in July, Rhode Island became the first state to sue big oil firms.
The agreement last week came after months of talks between environmental groups and the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, which spent a record $10 million through its super PAC in 2013 on typically sleepy citywide races. In the end, the industry agreed to a legally enforceable 2030 target in exchange for more flexibility on how to reach the 2050 goals.
"We don't view it as a compromise," Sikora said. "It's a great deal. It's a principled, bold, progressive approach."
In a statement that left open the possibility that things could change as the bill is is written, REBNY said the proposal was a " framework of principles" that show it recognizes "that climate change is a societal problem."
"This means that every sector, including real estate, needs to help address it." John H. Banks, REBNY's president, said in the statement. "We appreciate Council Member Constantinides' commitment to this issue and we look forward to reviewing the legislation once it is introduced."
De Blasio has twice attempted to mandate emissions cuts from privately-owned buildings, first in 2016 and then again in 2017. But the plans went nowhere. REBNY vocally opposed the first plan.
Then, last September, the mayor released his second, more-detailed plan without coordinating with his usual environmental allies on the City Council, alienating legislators who were working on their own bills to cut emissions. They declined to back de Blasio's proposal.
Constantinides introduced his own, more ambitious, bill in October.
But both mandates amounted to "half measures," according to a report New York Communities for Change released in June. The mayor's plan would lead to only 7 percent cuts in the city's climate pollution. Constantinides' bill, Intro 1745-2017, only reduced emissions by 13 percent.
There's some concern the new legislation could put the onus to make cuts primarily on city-owned buildings. The Urban Green Council proposal calls for public-sector buildings larger than 10,000 square feet to slash energy use 20 percent by 2025, twice as fast as privately owned buildings.
That's a break from the mayor's proposal in 2016, which called for a mandated fossil fuel cap to be applied to all buildings greater than 25,000 square feet, according to Politico New York. But "the vast majority of buildings affected by our policy framework are privately owned," according to Unger.
The new bill already enjoys strong endorsements. Both the mayor and Council Speaker Corey Johnson signaled their support for the legislation on Monday.
The bill is also expected to give extra leeway to New York's 1 million remaining rent-controlled apartments, to keep landlords from passing on the costs of retrofits to renters. Once Constantinides' bill becomes law, Sikora said the next step would be pushing state lawmakers to pass similar requirements with protections for low-income renters.
Yet the new bill's ambitious targets stirred some skepticism among climate scientists.
"I would expect, like all these agreements, the devil is in the details," David Titley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University and a retired Navy rear admiral, said, questioning whether a final law would contain sufficient penalties or "credible independent monitoring to ensure the standards are actually being met."
The bill also aims to make cuts by mid-century that a growing number of climate activists say must be completed by 2035. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) proposed the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act last September, calling for the end of oil, gas and coal use by 2035. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the high-profile Democrat favored to be the next U.S. representative from New York's 14th Congressional District, is running on a similar proposal.
"I'm glad to see it pass … but we need to advance our targets in alignment with the emergency nature of the crisis," said Gregory Schwedock, an activist with the Climate Mobilization, a grassroots group calling for World War II-levels of government spending to dramatically scale down emissions and create good-paying federal jobs. "This will not cement politicians' climate legacies or protect us -- emissions reductions wise, the targets are much too slow and it's a small step."
But Michael Mann, a climate scientist and author of The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics and Driving Us Crazy, said the 2050 target is "reasonable because infrastructure takes a long time to change, given the investment timescales involved with real estate construction."
For Rachel Rivera, whose roof caved in during Superstorm Sandy, the legislation offers hope for a path forward. At Monday's press conference, she repeatedly broke down in tears as she recalled snatching her daughter out of bed just before the ceiling buckled with water and fell where the 6-year-old had just been.
To this day, Marisol Rivera, now 12, suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. She became so hysterical when it started raining on Saturday that Rachel Rivera took her to the hospital, where the girl was sedated.
"To this day, when it rains really hard outside, she says, 'Mommy, are we going to live today? Are we going to pass away?'" Rivera said. "The climate crisis is here. We're living it every day."
2 Percent Of New York City's Buildings
Emit Half Its CO2 Pollution. They're Luxury Towers
Properties owned by the families of Donald Trump
and Jared Kushner rank among the
biggest contributors to the city's carbon footprint
Alexander C. Kaufman / The Huffington Post
NEW YORK (June 28, 2018) -- The 90-floor tower nicknamed the "Oligarch's Erection" is the gaudy centerpiece of Manhattan's Billionaire's Row -- a place where a corrupt Nigerian oil tycoon set a $51 million record for the biggest foreclosure in the city's history in 2017 and a Silicon Valley tech mogul bought the most expensive home ever sold in New York for $100.5 million in 2018.
But 157 West 57th Street is part of another, equally exclusive club that includes Trump Tower, the Trump International Hotel & Tower, the Kushner family's 666 Fifth Avenue, the ritzy Baccarat Hotel and Residences and 15 Central Park West, where Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein lives.
That club is the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide pollution in New York, where just 2 percent of buildings produce nearly 50 percent of the city's climate-altering emissions, according to a report released by New York Communities for Change, the People's Climate Movement NY, the Working Families Party and two other city-based environmental nonprofits.
By comparing public data on the amount of electricity the buildings pulled from the grid with the how much fossil fuel they burn on site, the report's authors calculated each structure's energy use on a system based on 30-year average temperatures and measured in kilo British thermal units, or kBtu, a measurement widely used by architects.
The median energy use intensity for office buildings in New York is 186 kBtu per square foot, for multifamily homes it's 125 kBtu per square foot. For public schools, it's 112 kBtu per square foot.
For 157 West 57th Street, that figure came out to 287. Trump Tower hit 208. The Trump International Hotel & Tower reached 267. 666 Fifth Avenue had 285. 15 Central Park West notched 222. The Baccarat soared to 386.
The coalition of local environmental groups who authored the report, shared exclusively with HuffPost, are calling on city lawmakers to mandate 80 percent cuts to emissions and energy use by 2050. This would require dramatic upgrades to the boilers, water heaters, roofs and windows of existing skyscrapers. Seventy percent of the city's CO2 emissions come from buildings, according to the city.
"It's the Trumps and the Kushners that are polluting this city," said Pete Sikora, the senior adviser at New York Communities for Change, the nonprofit that spearheaded the report. "We're not a factory town in New York City, but if we were, our smokestacks would be buildings like Trump Tower."
Mayor Bill de Blasio has twice announced mandates to cut emissions from privately owned buildings, first in 2016, then again in 2017. But the plans went nowhere. The city's powerful real estate lobby launched a fierce campaign to oppose the mandate in 2016.
Then de Blasio released his second, more-detailed mandate last September without coordinating with his typical environmental allies on the City Council, alienating legislators who had been drafting their own bills to require building emissions cuts. They now decline to back the mayor.
In October, City Councilman Costa Constantinides, the Queens lawmaker who leads the Committee on Environmental Protection, introduced his own, more ambitious bill.
But both mandates amounted to "half measures," the report argues. The mayor's plan would lead to only 7 percent cuts in the city's climate pollution. Constantinides' bill, called Intro 1745-2017, only reduced emissions by 13 percent.
Now Sikora said environmentalists are hoping New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was elected in January, will push Constantinides to make his legislation ambitious enough to meet the 80 percent by 2050 goal when the bill is reintroduced later this summer or early fall.
It's the Trumps and the
Kushners that Are Polluting This City
Drastic climate action in New York City ripples far beyond the five boroughs. In January, de Blasio announced the city is suing five major oil companies over infrastructure damage from climate change. The mayor also plans to divest roughly $5 billion in fossil fuel investments from the city's five pension plans.
The move marked a landmark victory for the divestment movement, given New York City's status as a financial and cultural giant with a gross domestic product big enough to rank among the world's top 20 economies. Other cities quickly followed.
But the real estate lobby's money could prove to be an obstacle. The Real Estate Board of New York's super political action committee pledged to spend $10 million in 2013, injecting an unprecedented amount of corporate money into neighborhood races.
The 10 biggest landlords and developers in New York together donated about $6.5 million to political campaigns between 2013 and 2014, according to a Commercial Observer analysis from 2015.
In 2016, ProPublica identified $21 million in real estate donations to New York state candidates and party committees since 2000 -- a staggering demonstration of how industry players secured tax breaks and weakened rent laws.
"That sword of money is just hanging over every councilmembers' heads every time they think about issues like this," Sikora said. "They have so much power; it's astonishing."
The board said it was currently "working with a diverse set of stakeholders to find a path forward to better measure and reduce energy consumption," and called environmentalists' criticism of its political participation "ironic."
"Compared to other global cities, New York is among the cleanest and greenest with respect to sustainability," John H. Banks, president of REBNY, said in an emailed statement. "This is due, in part, to the strides that have been made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by buildings."
Seth Stein, the mayor's spokesman, said the administration looks forward to "the council introducing and hearing a bill on this issue as early as possible."
"We are pleased by the growing consensus around the need for mandatory retrofits to cut dirty fossil fuels from our buildings," he told HuffPost through email.
The speaker declined to comment.
Aggressive legislation to retrofit old buildings is a start, but curbing the power of luxury developers -- and that of the ultrarich who buy from them -- is key to averting the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
Since New York City's fiscal crisis in the 1970s, officials have steadily chipped away at public goods, neglecting things like the subway system, rolling back renter protections and privatizing an ever-growing number of parks and green spaces.
Meanwhile, the luxury real estate industry has flourished, becoming a favored investment for the wealthy globetrotting set who split their time between multiple homes and often skirt New York taxes by spending less than 50 percent of their time in the state.
"While these cities have this horrible homeless crisis, you have these huge, empty apartments, and a lot of them are outrageously responsible for emissions," said Ashley Dawson, author of the book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change.
"Even when people are living in their apartments, they often have more than one apartment or have a lifestyle that involves jet-setting around the world."
"So," he added, "it's the one-tenth of a percent who really are responsible for the lion's share of carbon pollution emitted by New York City."
Dirty Buildings Report by Alexander Kaufman on Scribd.
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