New York City’s Newly Passed Green New Deal, Explained

Jerri-Lynn here. NYC has long served as a bellwether for progressive public policies. Recently, the city adopted a single use plastics ban. Last week, it passed its own modest Green New Deal.

This initiative falls far, far short of where climate change policy needs to go, but is certainly an improvement on the fossil fuel-friendly agenda of the Trump administration (and its predecessors).

By Molly Enking, a new fellow at grist.Originally published at Grist

As the rest of the country continues to go back and forth over the possibility of a nationwide Green New Deal, New York City is forging ahead with its own version. The Climate Mobilization Act passed the city council on Thursday with a vote of 45 to 2 amidst cheers and applause from those inside the chambers.

The bundle of 10 bills will keep the city in line with emissions reduction targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the bill into law in the coming weeks.*

“This package of bills will be the single largest carbon reduction effort in any city, anywhere, not just New York City, that has been put forward,” said Committee for Environmental Protection Chair Costa Constantinides in a committee hearing the morning of the vote. “By our calculations, it will result in the equivalent of taking more than one million cars off the road by 2030.” Proponents of the legislation say it will have a significant impact on air quality in the city, which has higher than the national average asthma rates and create thousands of new middle-class jobs for the city.

Making big changes to meet climate goals in New York City is tricky because so much of the city’s day-to-day operation–from public transportation to water, even its ability to ban plastic bags — is controlled by the state government. By focusing largely on local building standards, the city has been able to carve out green legislation within its jurisdiction.

The act’s pièce de résistance is a bill that requires many of city’s buildings to significantly slash their carbon emissions starting in 2024, reducing overall emissions by 40 percent by 2030. Buildings are responsible for almost 70 percent of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2017 estimate. The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability estimates upgrades needed to meet the act’s emissions caps would cost building owners around $4 billion, according to the New York Times. The measure was vehemently opposed by the real estate industry, which argued the bill is costly, unrealistic and puts an unfair burden on the owners of buildings not exempted from the law.

New York’s powerful real estate lobby has been fighting energy-efficient building legislation as far back as 2009 when then-Mayor Bloomberg proposed a similar rule. So in a city where the real estate industry so often gets its way, today’s vote really stands out.

But the times are a’changing, and even skeptical New Yorkers (and potential 2020 presidential candidates) like Mayor Bill de Blasio, who recently called the act “very aggressive,” have come around in support of the measure. “Climate change poses an existential threat to New York City, and making buildings more sustainable and efficient is a key part of the solution,” said de Blasio’s Office of Sustainability via email. “Protecting New Yorkers from climate change is not optional.”

What Does the Act Do?

The act consists of 10 bills which aim to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions in a myriad of ways. Some of the standouts:

  1. A bill that requires the city to conduct a feasibility study by 2021 looking at closing the city’s 24 gas- and oil-fueled power plants in favor of renewable sources and batteries to store excess energy. The study would be revisited every four years.
  2. Green roofs on new and smaller buildings: two bills in the package stipulate that roofs should be covered in plants, solar panels, mini wind turbines or some combination of the three. Green roofs help filter pollutants and add agricultural space in cities.
  3. The final resolution of the package calls upon the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to deny the Water Quality Certification permit for the Williams Pipeline, which is proposed to bring fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania to the New York. Governor Cuomo banned fracking in New York in 2014, but proponents say the pipeline is necessary to meet the growing demand for natural gas, and that it will facilitate a city-mandated transition away from using dirtier oil for heating.
  4. It wasn’t voted on today, but an additional measure to convert all school buses to electric within 20 years was also included in the package, part of New York City’s goal to switch all public buses to electric by 2040. The council expects to vote on this bill by Earth day.

But the meatiest (veggiest?) bill of the bunch is unofficially known as the “Dirty Buildings Bill.” It requires around 50,000 of the city’s buildings to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 by installing new windows, insulation and other retrofits to become more energy efficient. The legislation targets buildings over 25,000 square feet, which make up just 2 percent of the city’s real estate but account for about half of all building emissions. If landlords fail to meet targets, they will be forced to pay a fine of up to millions of dollars per year. Some of the guilty buildings will include Trump Tower, the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, and 15 Central Park West.

Not every edifice will have to scramble to make energy-efficient updates. Non-profits, hospitals, religious sites, rent-controlled housing and residential buildings of four stories or less are exempted from the bill in various ways. The legislation also creates a low-interest energy loan program to help building owners get funding to make these green improvements. Councilmember Constantinides said that they designed the loans so that, most loan recipients should see a net gain after all is said and done after factoring in the cost savings from improved energy efficiency.

Who Stands to Benefit?

Well, the earth, naturally. But people-wise, NYC is hoping the construction work involved in the building overhaul bill will benefit the city’s shrinking middle class while simultaneously improving public health.

“By 2030, this bill will create 26,700 green jobs, and will prevent 43 premature deaths and 107 Emergency Room visits annually by 2030,” a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability wrote in an email to Grist.

A study by New York Working Families and the non-profit ALIGN NY found that the new laws would create 23,627 “direct construction jobs” implementing the retrofits, and 16,995 “indirect jobs” like building operation and maintenance jobs, manufacturing and professional services per year until 2030.

“We wanted to ensure legislation that tackled both climate change and inequality,” said Peter Sikora, the climate and inequality campaigns director with grassroots organization New York Communities for Change. “You can’t fight climate change on the backs of poor people of color, that’s not right.”

Who Put Up a Fight?

Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are among the biggest energy users among New York City buildings over 25,000 feet. Before the act passed, hospital representatives were seeking a total exemption from the “Dirty Buildings Bill” rules — but they were ultimately denied.

Hospitals are among the biggest energy users among buildings over 25,000 feet. . “Hospitals, in all fairness, are unusual because they’re 24-hour operations and have federal rules” such as replacing their indoor air a certain number of times per day, Sikora said. Still, “It’s ironic that healthcare institutions were lobbying against anti-pollution requirements.”

Although hospitals didn’t receive the full exemption from the new laws, they are being held to the lowest standard allowed by the “Dirty Buildings” bill, meaning they’ll still have to cut emissions, but not on the same timeline or to the same extent as other facilities.

What’s Next?

Back to the power plant bill: Once the feasibility study is completed, what will be the next steps to start shutting down these pollution-spewing energy generators? There aren’t any guarantees or safeguards built into the legislation to say how, or when, the city council will use the study’s findings to begin divesting from the dirty fuel or shutting down power plants impacting lower-income communities.“The City Council will continue its work to move away from fossil fuel and into more renewable energy sources,” a spokesperson for New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told Grist.

Sikora agreed that the city’s Green New Deal plans are fuzzy for now. “There are loads of details and implementation issues and administrative actions and financing mechanisms that need to take place moving forward,” he said.

The fate of the Williams Pipeline also remains to be seen. Even though the Climate Mobilization Act includes a resolution condemning the pipeline, it’s still largely up to Governor Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation, which has until May 16 to issue a key water certification that’d allow construction to begin this year. Even as environmental advocates celebrated New York’s Green New Deal vote, some participants peeled off for a march in protest of the fracked gas pipeline.


*This story previously stated that New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio signed the Climate Mobilization Act on Thursday. According to his spokesperson, he has not yet signed it, but will in the near future.

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  1. skippy

    Climate Change – The Facts

    Published on Apr 19, 2019

    After one of the hottest years on record, Sir David Attenborough looks at the science of climate change and potential solutions to this global threat. Interviews with some of the world’s leading climate scientists explore recent extreme weather conditions such as unprecedented storms and catastrophic wildfires.

    Not news around here although might be a decent link for circulation considering Sir David Attenborough and cameo cast.

  2. Svante Arrhenius

    One could speculate that revising “alternate side parking” and banning thousands of big Uber & Lyft vehicles cruising mid-town might help. PV arrays into the grid to prepare for rolling black outs, brownouts & god only knows what, as small gas-fired power plants falter, the nearly six year old Constitution Pipeline 36″ finally gets jammed beneath the city’s water supply, folks start to replace YOOJ Audis with YOOJ Volvos. Perhaps, serious activity to restore NY’s subways, NJT, PATH & Amtrak tunnels, all rail rights-of-way, control systems; to facilitate transport of actual working individuals… preparing those most vulnerable, for what’s already happening, climate-wise? How’d Steve Martin put it? NAaahhh! The wealthy will simply switch to snorkeled Unimogs?

    1. Svante Arrhenius

      PS: once the fuel oil, steam heat, trash & recycling, last mile delivery, garage, Taxi and Limosine Commission all pipe in, guess steam heat/ window air-conditioners, CNG micro-turbine hybrid garbage and delivery trucks, Finnish EV busses, and of course our antique reactors will just dissappear, along with all the troubling, Rooski troll based BernieBro® jihadist cognitive dissonance?

      1. Yves Smith

        You lost your credibility with putting steam heat on the list. It’s a by-product of electrical generation. And why is the TLC, which limits the number of cabs on the street, a bigger problem that Uber and Lyft, who subsidize rides with the result that you have cars for hire running around empty a higher % of the time than before?

        Criticism is warranted but you don’t help the cause by being so wide of the mark.

        1. Svante Arrhenius

          Yves, it’s a tremendous waste of energy. Millions of open windows, all winter long? I’d linked to one of scores of articles. Don’t worry, soon it will all go away. The waste of energy (fracked, ever more frequently from my home state) lines pockets.

          1. Svante Arrhenius

            Sorry, I hadn’t seen the edits? We were actually coping with a valve repair to the water lines to the mob, toxic waste fired boiler. Saying that steam, here, is co-gen (30-50% from Con Ed’s PR) seems a generalization? Williams will have 4-5 fracked gas lines coming here, soon enough. The plans to improve their return, moving it down south (to fuel folks air-conditioners) or sell LNG to Europe, are somewhat muddled & confusing, now?


          2. Grumpy Engineer

            @Svante Arrhenius:

            Yves is correct. When steam is provided by facilities that are configured as “cogeneration” or “combined heat & power (CHP)” stations, then what we’re doing is capturing the waste heat that would otherwise be dumped into nearby waterways or the air. [Why is there waste heat? See 2nd law of thermodynamics.] It’s one of those rare circumstances in life where thermal energy is effectively free, and if you open your windows because you have too much heat in your living space, then all you’re doing is changing the location where the heat is released to the environment.

            And when the total amount of heat being produced exceeds that necessary to heat the buildings being supplied, then the surplus will be directly released to the environment. It’s just a matter of where. Whether it’s out windows or out the exhaust ports of an evaporative chiller or cooling tower at the power station, the law of conservation of energy must be satisfied. Opening a window in the dead of winter may see wasteful, but in this particular scenario it has negligible overall effect.

            Personally, I wish we did this more. But because the mere sight of a power station is excessively traumatic for too many people, many power stations are located far from urban centers. Too far for steam to be piped. As a consequence, all waste heat must be dissipated locally at the power station, while furnaces in the city are separately fueled by oil or natural gas. Total CO2 emissions (and fracking activity) go up as a result.

            1. Svante Arrhenius

              Ah, er… If ALL the buildings used ConEd steam and it was only co-generated. I’d be happy to agree. I double dog dare any of us to discover just how many oil/gas/”electric” boilers are running in basements of 1890s buildings such as mine. I’ve been throwing away gas line pipe they’d immediately buy, and put under side streets and avenues, for decades. I’m not altogether impressed by ConEd’s candor. Sorry, to both yunz kids…

              1. Grumpy Engineer

                Aye. That’s a valid point. Not all heating in NYC comes from cogeneration. In facilities heated with oil, natural gas, resistive heaters, or heat pumps, opening the windows in winter is indeed wasteful.

                1. Svante Arrhenius

                  Sounded, yesterday, as if any number of the commentariate have (or still do) work for utilities, in various skill-sets and capacities. I’m curious to hear from transportation engineers and anybody who’d worked in storm ravaged areas, concerning resilient infrastructure enhancements , etc?

              2. Yves Smith

                I’m in a 1913 building, the first elevator apartment building in Manhattan. And it uses all steam heat. Building also has masonry walls, so it has a lot of thermal inertia. But to your point, I was in a townhouse once (IIRC 1925) and it didn’t use steam heat at all.

        2. Grumpy Engineer

          Hmmm… Given that NYC’s power stations are being run as “combined heat & power stations” (CHPs), where waste heat from electricity generation is used supply steam to heat buildings, then they’d lose both a source of electricity and a source of wintertime heat if the local power stations were shut down.

          Using renewable energy and batteries could conceivably replace the electricity portion alone, though it would be a BIG effort. I estimate that they’d need ~7 GW of renewable generation assets and ~100 GW-hr of battery storage. The renewable generation asset portion is easier, claiming about 3.5% of annual worldwide production and costing about $20 billion. The battery portion is harder, claiming about 40% of annual worldwide production and costing about $200 billion. [These numbers assume that electricity demand remains unchanged, but conservation efforts would help. Hopefully enough to make a real difference.]

          But if NYC plans to use renewable energy to HEAT buildings as well (via heat pumps, most likely), then the sizes of the renewable generation assets and battery storage systems could easily increase by a factor of FIVE or more. And if they aren’t going to use renewable energy for heating purposes, then this means that the steam will come from gas-fired boilers, which means saying “yes” to the Williams Pipeline, plus others.

          This plan looks untenable.

          1. Svante Arrhenius

            Well, a small fission reactor, say just north of the Jackie O reservoir, would likely meet all five boroughs’ needs? That’s what OUR lives have been like. Or, simply frack the heck outa the Catskills? We’re pretty much all bailing, now.

            1. Grumpy Engineer

              Heh. A nuclear power station operated as a cogeneration facility is exactly what I would recommend for maximal decarbonization of NYC. It would be very effective while releasing negligible CO2.

              Of course, given the political leanings of most NYC politicians and the fate of the Shoreham nuclear power station, I’d estimate the probability of a nuclear reactor being used for NYC’s Green New Deal to be essentially zero. Which, alas, means that the the status quo will continue. [The renewable stuff would take forever.]

              1. Svante Arrhenius

                AND you could frack with steam from the cooling loop. Infinitely superior to the hydroelectric nightmare of yesteryear: 120mph GG1s, subways & streetcars.

  3. Corbin Dallas

    de Blasio is a fake progressive so watch between what he says and what he acts.

    The fact that NYC calls itself green and de Blasio calls himself the ‘climate change mayor’ but does nothing about car traffic and does virtually nothing to help buses, HOVs etc (witness the spectacle with the L train) is absolutely laughable.

    1. Joe Well

      1. Doing nothing about car traffic? Aside from having the most comprehensive public transportation in the US, aren’t they studying a congestion tax? The thing about the congestion tax that makes me want to put on a yellow vest, as someone who drives into NYC from somewhere else to visit family, is that the public transportation (subway especially) is so awful and there aren’t better park-and-ride options. If they addressed the issue holistically (replacing cars with long-distance shuttle buses, for instance), it would be better.

      2. As for the subway, as mentioned in the article, responsibility for the subway is divided between the city and the state, and it’s Cuomo’s state government that has been the biggest obstacle to improvement. The NY Times did a magnificent investigative series last year (IIRC) at how Cuomo and the rest of the state government were stuffing the subway budget with patronage.

      1. AstoriaBlowin

        de Blasio refuses to substantially address the increase in traffic and related emissions we’ve had in NYC since the start of the ride hailing era. NYC is choked by traffic, there’s only the most superficial effort to add dedicated bus and bike lanes to get people out of their cars. There’s no effort to substantially increase on street parking prices to discourage private car use

        As for congestion pricing, the price is going to be too low and there will be too many carve out and rebates for politically connected groups that it will end up being diluted to the point of meaningless. It should be a minimum of $20 with no exceptions. If you want to pollute, cause traffic, endanger pedestrians, slow down buses then you should pay for the privilege.

        de Blasio is a massive hypocrite on climate change.

        1. Yves Smith

          I hate to tell you, but I don’t see bikes as a good solution for NYC. First, you have lots of people who commute in form the outer boroughs and suburbs. Second, the weather is a big problem. November to March it’s just too raw to bike, even before you get to the streets being snowy or slick in places with ice. From June to early Sept., again too hot for commuters (who wants to get to work all sweaty?). And where do you put your bike? Most buildings prohibit storage in the corridor (no joke, you can be evicted for that, my building has made precisely that threat against people who left stuff outside their apartments) and so it takes space in the apartment….when many people don’t have enough space to begin with.

          1. AstoriaBlowin

            I commute via bike year round with citibike so I know all about the challenges the weather can pose. You don’t need your own bike or a place to store it with bikeshare. If the city spent some of the $600 million they have wasted on carbon spewing ferries for the rich on expanding Citibike you’d have a much better, coherent bike share system.

            But the main reason people bike or not is their perception of safety and ease of use. If you design bike infrastructure for all ages and abilities, then people will ride. This is what decades of experience in other countries shows. The weather in Denmark is awful (rain, cold, super windy) most of the year but they still have bike mode share over 30% of all trips because its safe, easy and convenient. In NYC we design bike infrastructure for the brave and/or foolhardy so that’s the very small segment of the population who will use it.

            Either get lower the number of cars or make the bike routes safer and you will see an explosion in riding. This has the virtuous circle benefit of getting more people out of cars as they see that they can make trips via bike.

      2. Corbin Dallas

        The governor controls the MTA but as another commenter wrote, the mayor of the city has immense power over the streets of NYC. He could overnight clear massive bus-only lanes, reduce parking, make big pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, but he wants to focus on inane things like virtue signaling about plastic straws (important for sure but they aren’t relevant to emissions). I urge you to read into the L train streets improvements which could have gone through but which de Blasio cowardly backpedaled on once he realized he didn’t need to, you know, govern.

        I hated Bloomberg’s policies on most things, but Janette Sadik-Kahn was a genius with the foresight and breadth of view to really start the city on progressive infrastructural change. Every single move from BdB on this (as with other issues, like policing, but I digress) has been backward.

        1. Pat

          As someone who lives around 14th Street and uses the cross town bus, let me tell you the ‘improvements that have been made to 14th Street have made traffic worse including for buses. That includes the supposed bus lane. One of the inane traffic decisions was moving a bus stop so that the bus is blocked from moving forward after the stop by turning traffic AND that turning traffic is blocked by people getting off the bus trying to get to the subway entrances across the street. You also have to remember that depending on where you put those bus lanes you are making double parking a given because yes, businesses still need deliveries.

          Sometimes the supposedly obvious choices have real problems attached. I have spent over a decade watching traffic decisions made in New York that made traffic worse, not better. Believe me it isn’t just Uber, Lyft and the ride share services. To the point that I am sure the plan is not to improve things but to get a butt load of money from a congestion tax. Something that keeps being talked of being implemented without also making the necessary changes to make this work – improved public transportation as in more frequent buses, more bus routes throughout the borougs not only subway, increased train service with more park and ride locations, etc, etc, etc.

      3. Yves Smith

        The congestion charges they put on now for cabs are killing rides. It’s $3 to $4, depending on the time of day, all day. I am injured and have to take cabs a lot now, and the increase is painful, If there were any way for me to take public transportation instead, I would (of course, I was in general before…..)

        1. Pat

          They are quite literally killing the cabs with the increased fares. It is not just 3 or 4 dollars, I had to take a cab the other day and it was over $5 dollars just for getting in.

        2. AstoriaBlowin

          So what you’re saying is that you are getting a little closer to paying the true cost of the service you are purchasing, instead of that price being artificially suppressed by subsidies or through not accounting for externalities like pollution, road wear and endangering others? I’d say that’s a good thing.

  4. Ed Giardina

    One of the problems with preventing natural gas pipelines is that it doesn’t reduce natural gas demand, nor does it actually stop natural gas consumption. Most natural gas is brought in liquefied on ships from other nations. We’ve producing an excess of natural gas but still import it because we can’t move it efficiently over the midland states where its fracked to the east coast cities where its consumed.

    I just converted my house in Rhode Island from oil to natural gas. Natural gas isn’t great for the planet, but it burns cleaner than oil, and can be piped, taking transport trucks off the road. Natural gas is also a byproduct of producing other fuels, so we’ll still end up making it while we are producing oil for cars. Long story short, I am not a fan of blocking pipelines for natural gas without first reducing the energy demand in the first place.

  5. mle detroit

    Jerry-Lynn, thanks for this. We’ll be relocating next year, and I hadn’t thought to include energy-efficiency on my list of criteria despite its being the priority in work on our present home. Yves, et tu?

  6. John B

    How significant is this? According to New York’s 2015 inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions, buildings account for 70 percent of the city’s emissions. If they actually could reduce 70 percent of their emissions by 80 percent by 2050, as the plan aims to do, that seems big — all without federal involvement. On the other hand, nationwide, buildings produce more like 40 percent of emissions, and New York City is a big exporter of emissions, because it relies on other regions to produce practically everything it consumes, while many of its daytime inhabitants live elsewhere.

    On balance, though, if local governments have control over 40 percent of emissions via building codes, it suggests that local efforts to stop climate change could amount to more than I’d suspected.

  7. Heliopause

    Feasibility studies.
    Mandated changes for decades in the future that people who haven’t even been born yet will have to enforce.

    Yep, a technocrat’s dream come true.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Action 1: A feasibility study — feasibility study? — to see what would happen if the City shut-downs some or all of its 24 gas- and oil-fueled power plants in favor of renewable sources and batteries to store excess energy? This action recalls many many feasibility studies done in the 1970s and 1980s looking into the feasibility of mass transit for many cities and towns across the US. A lot of feasibility studies were completed, but not much mass transit was built.
      Action 2: Green roofs sound nice. I’m not clear how the green roofs will be implemented. Don’t green roofs add substantial loads a roof must support? Roofs are where many building place their air conditioning units. Will the law allow some leeway for the air conditioning units? Maybe the air conditioning units could be configured to run directly from the solar panels and mini-wind generators? Will the plants use much water? If many buildings have green roofs would the water used add to the humidity of the surroundings? How about white roofs — would white roofs be ‘green’?
      Action 4: The mandate to convert all school buses to electric within 20 years and all public buses to electric by 2040 [isn’t that 20 years also?] is nice but are electric powered buses feasible? Does this mandate anticipate rebuilding some sort of trolley system? A mandate won’t change the physics of battery design and the relatively advanced state of that art. Does NYC dream of some kind of light-weight ‘bus’/multi-person vehicle and a new fuel cell technology?

      The rectrofit of dirty buildings sounds like quite a can of worms. How many of the green jobs will actually support employment in New Jersey? Are there plans to build that tunnel Christie quashed and plans to do repairs in the existing tunnels? What about the problems getting materials into and out of NYC? What about adding more NJT trains to carry the workers in? Are there going to be more trains to and from Queens? Are there any provisions for stopping NYC hospitals from closing their doors? NYC can come to New Jersey for medical care.

      And I thought New Jersey made substantial contributions to NYC smog. Has New Jersey been remiss?

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        For Action 1, a feasibility study is indeed the right answer. NYC officials should truly know that their spiffy new idea will work before they start shutting down the power stations that currently energize and heat the city. That said, your assessment of the likely outcome is right on target. They’ll study things for a while, and then nothing will happen because it’s too darned expensive.

        On Action 2, I agree that there are too many caveats about green roofs. In addition to the difficulties you mention, green roofs make water leaks much more difficult to locate and repair. Black mold awaits.

        On Action 3, they’re absolutely going to need more natural gas if they shut off the power stations that provide the steam used to heat buildings today. Well, unless they build a nuclear power station.

        Action 4 is about the only one that makes sense. Maybe. Battery power works best in vehicles that run at low speed and make frequent stops. This describes bus and postal vehicle duty almost perfectly. There is a big catch, though… The need to run heaters in the winter. In extreme cold, heater duty can drain the batteries faster than vehicle propulsion does. It may prove impractical.

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