In April 2019, New York City passed the $14B Climate Mobilization Act. The new laws will reduce the city’s carbon emissions nearly 30% by 2030 and create thousands of green jobs. The most ambitious aspect of the new legislation regulates emissions from the city’s large buildings.
Both the structure of the new laws and their path from campaign to reality offer numerous lessons for Boston. As threatened coastal cities where building emissions comprise the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, New York and Boston share many similarities. Politicians in the two liberal cities are also willing to act on climate issues (with sufficient activist pressure, of course). Examining New York’s success story provides insights for Boston activists seeking to frame a successful campaign and bring green building laws to Boston.
Ambitious Targets and Fines for Large Buildings
New York and Boston’s largest buildings overwhelmingly emit the most greenhouse gasses. In Boston, for example, less than 3% of the city’s buildings produce over half of the city’s building emissions. New York’s new emissions reduction requirements apply only to buildings over 25,000 square feet and some building types, such as affordable housing developments, are exempt from the new law. Emissions from qualifying buildings must be reduced 40% from 2005 levels by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Buildings that fail to meet these targets face significant fines ($1M or more per year for the largest buildings). Owners can reduce their buildings’ emissions with investments in energy efficiency upgrades and/or by purchasing offsets. The new requirements are estimated to create thousands of jobs – approximately 3,600 construction jobs and another 4,400 jobs in maintenance and operations.
Lessons for Boston Activists
Passing New York City’s new laws required years of advocacy, negotiation, and deliberation by the city’s activists, industry experts, politicians, and policy-makers. The laws’ success also hinged on obtaining the support and advocacy of diverse constituents.
Assemble and Train a Diverse Coalition: Following the 2014 People’s Climate March, environmental justice activists, labor groups, and community organizations formed a new coalition: Climate Works for All. The coalition published a report demanding investments in resiliency, emissions reductions, and green jobs for New York City. The group’s first priority was pressuring lawmakers to design and implement new green building laws. In addition to coordinating public actions and protests, the coalition trained New York City residents to meet individually with City Councilors and other decision-makers to ask them to support the proposed legislation.
Acquire Expertise: At the same time, the Urban Green Council independently assembled representatives from over 40 organizations, including real estate, energy efficiency, and labor representatives, to craft a detailed blueprint for reducing carbon emissions from New York City buildings. The resulting “Blueprint for Efficiency” informed the policy creation for the new laws.
Identify Champions: New York City Councilor Costa Constantinides, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, initiated the bill with support from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. New York City activists, members of the Urban Green Council’s 80×50 Buildings Partnership, and others worked closely with Councilor Constantinides’s office to construct the bill.
Make the Enemy Tangible and the Consequences Real: Carbon is a climate change villain – but as an invisible gas, it makes a difficult campaign opponent. New York activists, with the privilege of numerous Trump and Kushner properties in their hometown, could easily point to “dirty building” enemies. Many New Yorkers, still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, also offered personal climate change stories to highlight the consequences of inaction. The legislation’s high job-creation numbers also appealed to many New York City residents.
Leverage Existing Resources: Boston has an existing system for tracking emissions from large buildings – the Building Energy and Reporting Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO). BERDO data is public and available through the City of Boston’s website. In New York, a similar mandated reporting system for buildings allowed activists to highlight the city’s major emitters and will soon provide the new Office of Building Energy and Emission Performance with the data to identify and fine noncompliant buildings. In Boston, a key challenge will be passing legislation to give “teeth” to BERDO in the form of fines or other penalties for high-emissions buildings.
Boston has the opportunity to become a climate leader like New York by introducing its own innovative new laws reducing emissions from large buildings. In the coming months, BCAN will continue to craft our new “Green Buildings, Not Greenhouse Gases” campaign. We’re seeking climate champions and advocates – please join us!
Want more? The following links offer additional detail on New York City’s new laws: