04/22/2014 12:24 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2014

Making New York City a Greener Place

In 1970, environmental experts realized that global pollution was getting out of hand. They needed to make their concerns known to a broader public -- and so Earth Day was launched. Ironically, the '70s are now starting to look like "the good old days." According to the recent United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "roughly half of all CO2 emissions stemming from human activity between 1750 through 2010 occurred during a 40-year stretch that began in 1970." If the creators of the original Earth Day were right that the clock was ticking back then, time is quickly running out today. According to Ottmar Edenhofer, a co-chairman of the committee that wrote the UN report, "if we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization."

Getting those nations most responsible for carbon emissions to commit to an international agreement has so far eluded the best effort of diplomats and national leaders. Fortunately, it doesn't take a diplomat, a president or prime minister to make New York City step up to the plate. In 2003, Mayor Bloomberg enacted his ambitious PlaNYC. It set out a vision for New York City in 2030, and it set forth a wide framework of policies -- ranging from ensuring that all New Yorkers live within ten minutes of a park to fostering clean, privately generated alternative energies -- to help us achieve those goals. During my time as chair of the Council's Sanitation Committee, I worked closely with the Administration to make the City's solid waste and recycling policies more sustainable including expanding plastics recycling, establishing residential and commercial composting programs and dramatically increasing public space recycling bins throughout the City.

Let's celebrate Earth Day by remembering that significant environmental change can be effectuated at the local level here in New York, and locally throughout the world. And with the progress of the last decade in mind, let us set a new set of goals, going beyond our previous efforts to set a standard for independent environmental action by cities and localities throughout the world.

Reduce Single-Use Bags: The City spends approximately $10 million to transport 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills and incinerators in surrounding states every year. And although paper bags are recyclable and often considered more "green" than their plastic counterparts, paper bag production requires significant amounts of water and energy, causing significant negative emissions and, of course, contributing to the destruction of our forests. In an effort to combat the negative environmental impacts caused by the overuse of single-use bags, I recently introduced legislation with several of my City Council colleagues to charge a ten-cent fee for single-use shopping bags at retail stores. It is doubtless that we can -- and should -- use fewer single-use bags. In addition to the environmental benefit, these bags also impact the City's bottom line: plastic bags are a common culprit of clogged storm drains, which contribute significantly to flooding. In addition, plastic bags incorrectly placed in the recycling stream cause damage to the sorting infrastructure at our recycling facilities. In the face of these considerations, it is long past time we took definitive measures to reduce single-use bags throughout New York City.

Smarter Buildings: New York's buildings must be cleaner and more energy-efficient. PlaNYC taught us that just 1 percent of all buildings in the city produce 86 percent of the total pollution from buildings -- more than all the cars and trucks in New York City combined. This is the result of burning the dirtiest grades of heating fuel, known as #6 and #4 heating oil. After passing legislation with my City Council colleagues to phase out the use of these dirty oils, we should continue to press hard to require the use of even cleaner home heating oils. Since dirty fuels are a leading cause of asthma, heating buildings with cleaner fuels can help to reduce the largest contributor to our City's air pollution.

Green Spaces: The City's Department of Parks and Recreation has documented that "urban trees help offset climate change by capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide...reducing energy used by buildings, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel based power plants." New York is now home to more than 5 million trees, and the public-private Million Trees NYC initiative is working to add another million. In light of the documented benefits of urban trees, we must also ensure that we increase green spaces in underserved communities throughout the city that lack adequate parks and other green spaces.

Zoning for Global Warming: Finally, as SuperStorm Sandy has demonstrated, some of the more grandiose plans for residential and commercial development of waterfront and shoreline areas must be made to withstand the effects of global warming. We must make sure that today's plans for highrises on the river don't result in highrises in the river if we get hit by another super-storm.