12/08/2014 08:33 am ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

NYC's de Blasio Administration and the Path to 80 Percent Greenhouse Gas Reductions

Although it took almost a year to get there, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has put in place the third critical piece of the city's sustainability leadership. Last week, he appointed Nilda Mesa, an experienced sustainability professional, as the first director of a new Office of Sustainability. Nilda ran sustainability operations at Columbia University for six years and had extensive environmental experience in Washington prior to that. She joins Emily Lloyd, another superb environmental professional, who is serving as the city's Commissioner of Environmental Protection, and Dan Zarrilli, a talented and dedicated public servant, who is director of New York's Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

The sustainability goals and policy designs of the de Blasio administration are well known and now in place. They include an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the implementation of a path-breaking green buildings plan, and a range of specific objectives in PlaNYC2030, New York City's sustainability plan. Improved air quality and the maintenance of the city's world class water system remain priorities, as does the implementation of the $20 billion shore line resiliency plan developed after Hurricane Sandy. The "80-by-50" goal is ambitious and difficult to achieve, but could be transformative. The key question is: can we get beyond words and actually make this happen?

All the policy pronouncements, appointments, and press releases are now in place. Next comes the real work of mobilizing the city's people, institutions and resources to make these policies real. One of the problems with long-term goals is they tend to get crowded out by short-term emergencies. This happened for good reason twice in the past decade and a half: first, after 9/11, when we struggled to recover from the physical, economic, and emotional impact of the worst terror attack in American history, and second, when we struggled to recover from the physical, economic and emotional impact of "superstorm" Sandy. Despite these profound natural and human made disasters, New York City perseveres.

But some short-term emergencies are not profound disasters, and instead media scandals or self-imposed crises. Even these lesser emergencies can cause long-term aspirations to be placed on the back burner, like energy efficiency, the Third Water Tunnel and the Second Avenue Subway. The Bloomberg team was quite good at dealing with the emergency of the moment, while keeping their eye on the long-term prize. That may be more difficult to achieve in the highly-charged political environment of the de Blasio City Hall. The challenge is to actively resist what I sometimes call "herd management". Herd management is the tendency of key staffers and managers to move herd-like with the mayor (or CEO) from one high-priority emergency to the next. Being part of the center of action provides an adrenalin rush for some, and at a minimum convinces other participants that you are an insider and a "force to be reckoned with."

Unfortunately, while attention is provided to the emergency of the moment, the more mundane and prosaic details of day-to-day administration are left unattended. Let me provide an example. Suppose you were setting up a national health insurance program. You worked hard to forge the policy compromises that got the bill enacted, but you left the details of implementation to others. You never imagined that a poorly-managed web presence could interfere with enrollment and threaten to crash the entire program--but that is exactly what happened to the Affordable Care Act. For the herd, for the important players in the White House, once health care was enacted it was time to move on. The president was focused on other issues and so it was time to leave health care behind and declare mission accomplished.

There is a deep connection between policy design and operations management, although many people prefer the glamour and creativity of policy design to the detailed behind-the-scenes work of routine operations. This is not just a problem in Washington or City Hall, we see it everywhere; for some folks, access to the boss is the only organizational value that matters. The private sector can also fall victim to herd management.

Many of the programs designed to address issues of environmental protection and sustainability management require a sharp focus on the details of administration. Energy efficiency targets in buildings provide a good example of a program that requires extensive operational attention. Columbia, along with other New York City universities, has agreed to energy efficiency measures to help the city reach its greenhouse gas reduction targets. In the winter, our buildings are set at 68 degrees. Unfortunately, many of the older buildings on campus do not have modern climate control systems that can be set precisely. The result is that some workspaces get very cold. In response, staff use electric heaters when it's cold, eliminating any energy savings gained by lowering the setting of the central heating system. The oil bill may go down, but the electric bill goes up.

The energy efficiency and emission reduction goals of the de Blasio administration are to be met by a combination of $1 billion in capital improvements in city buildings along with a yet-to-be-defined set of incentives for private builders and owners. The aspirations are impressive, but the results will need to be closely monitored and carefully measured. Moreover, the efforts to reduce greenhouse gases through renewable energy and energy efficiency will require a deep and dogged commitment to a long-term change in our city's culture and the organizational routines that deliver the goods and services central to our daily lives.

We don't actually know how to reduce 80 percent of our greenhouse gases by 2050. Some of the technology we will need to do this is still being invented. Even as this technology becomes available it must still be purchased, deployed and maintained. New York City has a great deal of old infrastructure and some old buildings that will require major retrofits to achieve these goals.

Policy pronouncements, negotiated agreements, and even capital investment will not be enough. Just as we must remember to change the batteries in our smoke detectors whenever we re-set our clocks, we will need equivalent steps in order to maintain our energy systems at peak efficiency.

Unlike the rest of America, most of New York City's energy use and greenhouse gas emissions come from our buildings and not from our vehicles. While most of the land in New York City sits beneath single-family homes, most of the people in New York live in multi-family dwellings. As Paul Simon once sang, around here, "one man's ceiling is another man's floor". Interdependence is a fact of New York City life. If one apartment refuses to participate in a building-wide energy initiative, it can compromise the ability of the building to contribute to the city's goals. Our ability to meet the 80-by-50 goal will be a test of our ability to act as a community.

Mayor de Blasio deserves praise for his ambitious sustainability goals and the excellent leadership team he has put in place to continue New York's path-breaking effort to build a sustainable city. But new appointments, reorganized offices and policy pronouncements should never be confused with concrete outcomes and real performance. Let's not make the mistake made by the Obamacare website managers, and take our eye off the ball. Let's put substantial resources and our best and brightest people to work on turning these policy goals into real, operating actions.