How New York is Standing Up To Climate Change

By: Lori Anne Vergara

The United Nations 2014 Summit on Climate Change took place on September 23, 2014, in New York City. World leaders came together to discuss the ways in which we could all take responsibility for our planet, and become instrumental in scaling back on environmental damage, which has contributed to air pollution, rising sea levels, and global warming. In anticipation of the UN Summit, thousands of activists took to New York City streets as part of the Climate March. This Climate March was the largest in history; it is estimated that several hundreds of thousands of people formed part of the march. Protestors made banners and flags, decorated floats and carried drums, and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio (recently named the UN Messenger of Peace for his work in different environmental causes) and Mark Ruffalo marched in support of the cause.

Powerful storms, like Hurricane Sandy, have changed the way New Yorkers think of climate change. Hurricane Sandy was powerful and devastating. Perhaps, and most importantly, it was unlike anything many of us had ever seen in our lifetime. It gave us a glimpse of the effects of climate change and placed a sense of urgency on the leaders of our state to come to action.  Under a plan originally released in 2007 by the Bloomberg administration, “PlaNYC,” the city had proposed different ways that it could work towards reducing the city’s carbon footprint. PlaNYC initiatives included building more energy efficient buildings, adding more parks and greenery, improving the existing transit system, encouraging recycling and composting, improving air and water quality, and promoting healthier lifestyles for residents through exercise and access to healthier foods.  To read about some of the ways in which New York City has made progress in these areas, please read the most recent progress report.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration recognizes that the efforts to improve the environment must continue. On September 21, 2014, Mayor de Blasio released a plan, “One City, Built to Last: Transforming New York City’s Buildings for A Low-Carbon Future.” The plan, increasingly dubbed, “The Green Buildings Plan,” is aimed at aggressively cutting down the greenhouse gas emissions of buildings located in the city—both publicly and privately owned. Scientists have discovered that most of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions are a product of the heating, cooling, and powering of electrical systems in buildings. The goal of the plan is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050.   This goal will be reached in part with renewable sources of energy and by transitioning from fossil fuels.

Many of the city’s public buildings, about 3,000 in total, (including but not limited to: schools, firehouses, police precincts, libraries, homeless shelters, and public housing) will be retrofitted by 2025. Within five years, 450 schools will have energy upgrades that will consist of 325 comprehensive lighting upgrades and 125 boiler replacements to improve energy efficiency and air quality. Maintenance crews and other building workers in all buildings will receive trainings on how to best use the new equipment in order to ensure that there is maximum energy efficiency.

Private building owners will also play a large role in cutting down carbon emissions. The city will provide private building owners with different economic incentives to upgrade their energy systems. If the city is not reaching its goals in time because private building owners are taking longer to make the change, then certain mandates will be triggered which will force them to make necessary changes. Under the new plan, a private building over 25,000 square feet will have to report its annual energy use, currently, that rule only applies to private buildings over 50,000 square feet.  There will also be a Green Grant program created to help people finance the change in energy sources.  Currently, low-income residents are often spending much more money on energy because they live in buildings that are less energy efficient. Ultimately, the Administration expects the plan would save billions of dollars and it would create new jobs in energy services and construction.

Mayor Bill de Blasio sees this plan as a way for New York to lead by example and take an active role in preserving the environment. Some changes to the City’s Building and Energy Codes will be needed to fully implement the plan.  As the Mayor stated, “Climate change is an existential threat to New Yorkers and our planet. Acting now is nothing short of a moral imperative.”   While our city gears up to make fundamental changes to our energy sources, and many of us may not be able to have a hands-on role in the Green Buildings plan, there are many things that we can do to maximize the efforts that our city is making to live in a healthier environment. We can remember to bring reusable bags to the store, shut off lights, use energy saving bulbs, recycle or compost, walk, ride bike, car pool, take public transportation, refrain from idling while leaving the car on, or even use products that are environmentally friendly. Hopefully, the city will surpass its goals by 2050, and New Yorkers will begin to reap the economic and health benefits of a greener environment.