deblasioNew York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has outlined what many consider an ambitious plan to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas output, raising hopes that New York could lead the way for other cities to take significant steps to cut emissions. Reviews for the plan, which entails cutting emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2050, have been mostly positive from environmentalists and real-estate magnates alike. But, observers say, its success or failure largely rests on how it is implemented. 

Released on September 21, when at least 300,000 people paraded through Manhattan with the People’s Climate March (PCM), de Blasio’s vision for a low-carbon New York drew political momentum from the protest.

In a speech delivered to world and business leaders at the international climate summit held two days later, de Blasio remarked on the passion of the protesters. “So many people who are fighting to save our planet have converged on our city to spark greater action,” he told the men and women gathered in the UN’s General Assembly Hall.

De Blasio’s emissions initiative was influenced by the city’s growing concern over climate change impacts. Superstorm Sandy, which struck the Eastern Seaboard in 2012, killed 44 people, left thousands homeless, caused widespread power outages and temporarily froze its transit system. It was particularly hard on the city’s low-income residents, leaving thousands of tenements in city-run housing developments without electricity or heat for weeks.

“The storms to come will be far more lethal,” the mayor cautioned from the UN podium. “We are not presented with options. We have only one choice—urgent, daring action.”

Under de Blasio’s plan – detailed in a 111-page report, One City Built to Last – upwards of 200 city-owned buildings will receive annual comprehensive energy efficiency upgrades through 2025. Emissions from buildings account for approximately three-fourths of New York’s greenhouse inventory, and the upgrades – which will include replacing boilers, utilizing solar energy and retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency – will lead to a projected 3.4 million metric ton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions yearly.

The climate adaption blueprint has already won praise from a host of unions and advocacy groups, including the local chapter of the NAACP and the AFL-CIO’s New York City labor council, whose president, Vincent Alvarez, described the measures as a significant step in the effort to “preserve our environment and the fight to create good jobs.” A projected 3,500 workers are expected to be added to construction and energy sector payrolls as buildings are reconfigured with climate change in mind.

Clare Donahue with Sane Energy Project, an environmental activism and policy group that has taken a lead in opposing new fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the city and around the state, was also upbeat. She sees the carbon-reduction plan as part of a new direction in city politics under de Blasio.

“This is a great signal,” said Donahue, noting that the city council’s new Chair of Environmental Protection, Donovan Richards, and other council members have expressed a desire to partner with advocates and community members—a marked departure from the era in which de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, served as mayor.

“It’s a completely different tone from the last 12 years, where doors had been shut and ears were deaf to citizen input,” said Donahue. “Now, there have been roundtable discussions and an open door policy. When activists visit council members now, the positive response is almost surreal; often we’ll hear, ‘we’re already working on that.'”

However, the devil is in the details.

“We’ll want to know what enforcement will be included in the greenhouse gas reduction goals,” she warned. “And what exactly is meant by statements about ‘cleaner heating fuels’ coming from the de Blasio administration. During the Bloomberg-era, that phrase was used to greenwash the increased use of fracked-gas.”

New York City presents a growing market for natural gas producers who are increasingly utilizing the controversial extraction process hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to reach deposits in the Marcellus Shale. There is a moratorium on fracking in New York State but, in bordering Pennsylvania, some 6,600 wells have been fracked since 2005.

The city’s Clean Heat program, a carryover from the Bloomberg administration, specifically relies on transitioning boilers to gas. “The program [has] helped 4,000 buildings—half of them affordable housing—convert to cleaner, more efficient heating fuels,” noted Abby Brooks, who manages Clean Heat for the Environmental Defense Fund and is working in conjunction with the city. The use of gas in boilers, however, has invariably skewed the city’s carbon inventory numbers, since emissions from extraction are not factored in.

When burned, natural gas has a carbon-equivalent footprint that is lower than coal and oil, but a 2010 study from researchers at Cornell University, using the industry’s own data, found that an average of eight percent of fracked wells leak the highly potent greenhouse gas methane. As a result, they noted that “compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.”

Converting or switching oil boilers to gas, Donahue pointed out, also works against the economic justice platform that served as the central tenant of de Blasio’s 2013 campaign. Boiler upgrades constitute major capital improvements (MCIs) that give landlords license to hike rent. Solar panels, however, do not constitute MCIs.

De Blasio applauded emissions cuts under the Bloomberg administration when the city’s greenhouse gas output fell 19 percent, largely due to boiler conversions. But Amy Spitalnick, the mayor’s Director of Public Affairs said his administration still considers gas a “low-hanging fruit.” Greenhouse gas reductions achieved through converting boilers won’t be duplicatable in the future nor will they lead to the cuts needed to meet their goals.

“Our long-term goal is a total transition away from fossil fuels and onto renewables,” said Spitalnick, adding that many in the business community are behind the plan as well. “The Real-Estate Board of New York and many other business groups are on board. Many landlords have undertaken retrofits on their own because of the long-term cost savings. Nearly everyone recognizes these actions are necessary and cost effective in the longterm.”

Though de Blasio has stated that enforcement measurements will be enacted if private building owners do not not take emissions reduction steps on their own, the absence of legally binding guidelines bears a striking resemblance to plans many regard as non-substantive put forward by the Obama administration and other leaders in the developing world that have delayed a concerted response to climate change.

Ahead of the 2009 climate conference for instance, Obama announced a target of 17 percent in greenhouse gas reductions from 2005 levels by 2020. The Kyoto Protocol, however, set 1990 levels as the bar, when emissions were 35 percent lower, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The de Blasio plan also uses 2005 as a measuring stick but only, Spitalnick insisted, because that was the first year the city began calculating its carbon inventory.

Despite the plan’s potential weaknesses, many in New York remain optimistic that it could one day lead to a greener city that sets a global example.

“Climate justice demands that we protect our most vulnerable communities,” said Eddie Bautista with the New York Environmental Justice Alliance and one of the lead organizers of the People’s Climate March. “We hope New York City’s leadership triggers a municipal revolution that compels global leaders to finally take long overdue action.”

Given projects that storms such as Sandy could arrive every three to twenty years by the end of the century, action can’t come soon enough. It will likely fall on the citizens of New York, many of whom participated in the People’s Climate March last month, to ensure that de Blasio and other city leaders live up to their pledges.

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