City Council Cracks Down on Big Greenhouse Gas Polluters, Finally

New York City is finally going after its worst greenhouse-gas emitters: big buildings.

In legislation approved by an overwhelming majority of the city council on Thursday, owners of building over 25,000 square feet will be required to meet increasingly-stringent emissions targets that will be phased in beginning 2024.

The bill has been touted by its proponents as the most comprehensive policy fighting building emissions of any city in the world. “We are on the precipice of climate disaster, and New York City is acting. I hope other cities follow suit,” said Speaker Corey Johnson on Twitter.

Buildings accounted for two-thirds of New York City’s total emissions in 2016, according to the most recent data released by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. Mark Chambers, the office’s director, said the bill would reduce large buildings’ greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, in testimony to the city council in support of an early version of the bill.

The legislation is a major victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has made climate change a core issue during his administration and is rumored to be mulling a presidential run in 2020.

Early on Friday, de Blasio tweeted out a video of remarks he made in March when announcing a $10 billion investment to protect Manhattan from climate change. “We need to protect this city and this country and this world from global warming. There’s no national policy to do it right now,” the mayor said. “We have to do it ourselves.”

The Mayor’s Office said the bill would keep “us on track towards our goal to have the cleanest air of any big city in America.” In 2014, de Blasio committed New York City to the Paris climate change agreement and promised aggressive reductions in the city’s emissions: 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. These milestones were codified in the city charter shortly after.

But getting here wasn’t easy. The bill was first introduced in late December of last year and it has gone through four revisions as lobbying groups have tried to make their dent in the final legislation. “There’s been pushback from big real estate, there’s been pushback from lots of different groups,” the bill’s main sponsor, Councilman Costa Constantinides, told City & State earlier this week. In the end, the bill attached a hefty list of exemptions which includes city-owned buildings, rent-controlled housing and religious institutions.

The bill “does not take a comprehensive, city-wide approach needed to solve this complex issue,” said the Real Estate Board of New York in a statement. The board, a real estate trade association, has fought hard against the changes demanded by the bill, which the New York Times has reported will cost building owners over $4 billion to implement.

The Real Estate Board has promoted a plan put forward by the Urban Green Council, which instead of hard caps would have required buildings to reduce their emissions by a certain percent. Although the Council has voiced concerns over earlier versions of the bill, a spokeswoman said that it was in “support of the bill” as passed.

In response to heavy lobbying from their trade association, hospitals were given an exception to the hard cap and allowed to meet percent reductions instead.

De Blasio has been reported to be closely involved in the drafting of the bill, and it now sits on his desk awaiting his signature. It marks the end of an ongoing push by the mayor for such legislation. His efforts were previously rebuffed by the council in 2017.

“It is a giant step in the right direction,” said Richard Leigh, a professor at the Pratt Institute who has studied green buildings. He added, “It’s going to stand as an example to every city on earth.”


The smoke stacks of Columbia University’s Jerome L. Greene Science Center tower over West Harlem. (Lucas Manfield/NYCityLens)