New York City has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. The announcement was made leading up to the People’s Climate March and the U.N. Climate Summit last week.

“Climate change is an existential threat to New Yorkers and our planet. Acting now is nothing short of a moral imperative,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. The City has released a plan detailing how that 80 percent target will be reached.

“The most important thing is that the Mayor’s announcement is…unambiguous,“ said Eric Goldstein, the director of New York City Environment for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “These all-important climate issues will occupy an important place in his [the Mayor’s] agenda.”

Goldstein said that the Mayor met Friday with key staff members, along with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, environmental justice and advocacy groups, and labor unions, to discuss implementation of his emissions reduction plan.

A Historic Plan

While the state has had similar targets for several years, the de Blasio plan is historic in at least two ways. The plan ties ambitious environmental objectives to social equity, specifically, making housing more affordable in the long-term.

Second, the City states that its long-term objective is to transition New York completely away from fossil fuels. We met demonstrators at the climate march who criticized the de Blasio administration, saying that the transition needs to happen immediately. However, it’s worth stating that de Blasio makes a real departure on this point from his predecessor.

Discussions with Bloomberg administration officials, and review of their sustainability plans, gave the distinct impression that Mayor Bloomberg and his team believed that fossil fuels would be part of the city’s energy mix for an indefinite period of time. Indeed, Mayor Bloomberg actively supported two major natural gas pipeline projects in the city, the first such projects in several decades.

“We have the power to begin transforming our buildings for a low-carbon future and the complete transition away from fossil fuels—and we will begin today,” the City states in the plan released last weekend.

Climate Target: the City’s Building Stock

As has been widely reported, the core of the City’s plan is to cut emissions released from New York’s built environment. Nearly three quarters of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy used to heat, cool, and power buildings. The City says that building retrofits must be “a central component of any plan to dramatically reduce emissions.”

As a point of reference, on-road transportation currently generates 21 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Mayor stated that New York will be the world’s largest city to commit to an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050, the global target established by the U.N. to avoid the most calamitous effects of climate change.

“Realizing this ambition will not be easy,” the Mayor wrote in his introduction to the plan. The City notes that more than 80 percent of New York’s carbon reductions to date “were due to a switch from coal and oil electricity generation to cleaner-burning natural gas and additional improvements to utility operations. These reductions cannot be replicated.”

As of 2013, New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 19 percent from 2005 levels.

A Deeper Round of Emissions Cuts

According to the Mayor, this next -and deeper- round of emissions cuts “will come building by building, block by block, and neighborhood by neighborhood. It will require new technologies and innovative thinking…The solutions we develop together will change our city, and they can change cities across the world.”

Approximately 3,000 city-owned buildings –including schools and public housing- will be retrofitted within the next ten years, generating “operational savings” for taxpayers, says the City. Private building owners will be given “ambitious” target reductions and “mandates if reductions are not met.”

Goldstein agreed that execution of the Mayor’s plan, especially getting private building owners to go along, is the key challenge. Many owners of smaller buildings -both residential and commercial- may not have the resources to invest in substantial energy efficiency upgrades. “If anyone understands those concerns, it will be this Mayor,” Goldstein said.

The Real Estate Board of New York has offered initial support to the Mayor’s plan. The Board’s chair, Rob Speyer, argued in a statement that New York was “hopefully leading the way for other cities around the world to follow.”

Retrofitting public buildings, and creating incentives for private building owners to do the same, will require an enormous investment from the City.

What’s the pay-off? By 2025, New York City building-based greenhouse gas emissions could drop by 3.4 million metric tons annually, equivalent to taking 715,000 vehicles off the road.

And the City says that both the public and private sectors will benefit substantially from energy cost savings- $8.5 billion over the next ten years. Approximately 3,500 new jobs in construction and energy services will be created by the effort, along with ancillary economic activity.

“At every step of the way, we will ensure that all these benefits accrue equitably across the city,” the plan notes. “All residents of New York City have equal claims to housing that is affordable, air that is breathable, and a city that is sustainable. Simply reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is not enough.”

The de Blasio administration’s decision to link environmental and economic issues has the potential to alter New York City’s political landscape.

“The challenge [for the City] will be to begin to address traditional environmental interests through an equity lens,” observed Goldstein. “If…[successful], that will be a very powerful constituency.”

Five Things that Make the Mayor’s Plan Noteworthy

  1. Mayor de Blasio’s administration is the first to envision a New York City that ultimately relies 100 percent on renewable energy. (see page 22)
  2. The de Blasio administration argues that climate change “can also exacerbate conditions of inequality in New York City. Individuals and communities who are most vulnerable due to poverty, poor health, crime, and/or food insecurity will suffer disproportionately from the impacts.” (see page 20)
  3.  The plan connects environmental objectives directly to social equity (lowering energy and housing costs); public health (lowering air pollution levels); and community-based economic development (job creation and new business opportunities).  (see pages 22 and 26)
  4. The City seeks to create a “thriving market” for energy efficiency upgrades and renewable energy. (see page 57)
  5. The City plans to use publicly-owned buildings -including public housing- as showcases for energy efficiency and conservation, renewable energy use, efficient operations and maintenance, cutting-edge clean energy technology, and overall sustainability. (see page 45)