Buildings Hold the Key to New York's Climate Goals

10/02/2014 01:40 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

In a week in which New York City served as base camp to a number of large-scale events and declarations demanding global action on climate change, it's fitting that what may be considered the most significant announcement of them all came from its mayor. Mayor Bill de Blasio's commitment to reduce the City's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80 percent by 2050 -- the level the United Nations projects is needed to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change -- further carves out New York City as a leader in climate action.

For De Blasio's administration and the city as a whole, a challenging road lies ahead to reduce GHG emissions. More than 80 percent of the reductions the City has achieved thus far are the result of switching electricity generation from coal and oil to natural gas, and from other improvements to utility operations -- all efforts that, while beneficial, obviously can't be replicated infinitely. The new "80 by 50" commitment is an enormous undertaking and meeting this goal will require much more than is outlined in the One City Plan. Where will the necessary reductions come from? Look no further than New York's iconic skyline.

The administration's new report, "One City, Built to Last: Transforming New York City's Buildings for a Low-Carbon Future," provides a blueprint for the most critical step to reach an 80 percent GHG emissions reduction by 2050 -- increasing the energy efficiency and performance of public buildings, new construction, and privately-owned buildings over the next 10 years. The City's one million buildings currently account for more than 70 percent of all citywide GHG emissions. We must address where we currently live and work. Eighty-five percent of the City's buildings that will exist in 2030 are already built.

New York is already on the right path thanks to the efforts by Mayor Bloomberg and PlaNYC. In passing the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan in 2009, it became one of the first U.S. cities to establish and implement a comprehensive building energy use benchmarking program under Local Law 84. By requiring building owners and operators to track and report their energy and water use to the city on an annual basis -- and then publicly disclosing this information, as the city did this week with its third-annual Local Law 84 Benchmarking Report -- New York City is creating the backbone of what can become a thriving market for energy efficiency.

In just three years of reporting, the benchmarking data is already showing forward momentum, with compliance rates increasing each year and building energy use trending progressively downward. A critical next step is to better engage and support private building owners in pursuing energy efficiency projects. This is especially important in the multifamily buildings that currently house 4 million New Yorkers and account for 54 percent of all GHG emissions citywide.

New York will have to make it easy for property owners to finance high upfront costs of efficiency improvements, ramping up financing options that are already available or in development, such as green mortgages and energy services agreements that better reflect the value of energy efficiency investments. The city also needs to aggressively market these strategies to buildings owners to help them overcome inertia and tap into the gold mine of cost-effective energy efficiency savings that Local Laws 84 and 87 (both part of the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan) have identified.

Property owners are not the only beneficiaries of improving the energy efficiency of New York's buildings. Doing so also offers outsize benefits for the city's 8 million residents. The energy efficiency initiatives laid out in Mayor de Blasio's report will generate an estimated $750 million in construction spending every year over the next 10 years, create an estimated 3,500 construction-related jobs, provide training for more than 7,000 building operators and staff, and generate $1.4 billion in annual cost savings for New Yorkers by 2025.

This is great news, especially for the millions of renters and low-income residents who are hit by high energy bills. As of 2012, almost 55 percent of all NYC households were rent-burdened -- defined as paying more than 30 percent of annual income on gross housing costs -- with rising utility costs being a major reason. Energy efficiency measures will also free up funding that owners could invest in other capital upgrades to improve their buildings. For the City, the money saved by reducing operating costs can be redirected to other investments. And not only will this plan be good for New Yorkers' wallets, but it will be good for their health. By improving the efficiency of our buildings, we'll burn less coal, oil, and gas, clearing the air and lowering health risks such as asthma and heart disease. Closer to home, an analysis of Local Law 84 data revealed that neighborhoods with the most energy-hog apartment buildings also recorded the highest number of emergency room visits for asthma attacks.

In order to transform New York's building stock into the high-performing skyline it has the potential to become and to achieve 80 by 50, the city will need to both lead by example with its public buildings and; provide key stakeholders in the built environment with support on all levels -- whether it be through financing, technical assistance, data access, training, collaboration, or support for innovation. It won't be easy, but this kind of bold action is contagious.

Buildings account for the majority of GHG emissions in big cities around the country. Many mayors are taking their own first steps to create sustainable urban environments. New York can continue to guide them.

It already has. Currently, 10 pioneering cities across the U.S. signed on to the City Energy Project, a national initiative led by the Institute for Market Transformation and the Natural Resources Defense Council, with the goal of boosting local economies, reducing carbon pollution, and sharing next-generation energy efficiency strategies for communities nationwide. It is a project that drew inspiration from the work done in New York under PlaNYC. Imagine the ripple effects that may come from this latest show of leadership.

As was voiced many times last week, we cannot wait for others to take decisive action toward creating a sustainable future. The One City Plan is an ambitious step in the right direction. However, between now and 2050, we need many more public and private tools to promote energy efficiency, as well as interim goals to gauge progress. New York City has called for us to move forward and push farther. The challenge of how to get there isn't something the City should shoulder alone.