New York City moves to regulate its biggest carbon emitters: its buildingsNew York City moved to tackle climate change by regulating its biggest carbon emitters: its buildings. Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images
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By Dana Drugmand

New York City, which is attempting to force fossil fuel companies to pay for climate change adaptation costs through a lawsuit, has passed groundbreaking legislation addressing its own greenhouse gas emissions. The New York City Council voted 45-2 on Thursday in favor of a suite of bills aimed at cutting carbon emissions, improving energy efficiency and advancing clean energy.

“Our planet is closing in on a breaking point, and we have to transition from investing in fossil fuel infrastructure to clean renewable energy,” City Council Speaker Cory Johnson said in a press conference. He said the legislation, called the Climate Mobilization Act, is the city’s version of the Green New Deal.

The package of bills focuses on the city’s buildings, which account for more than two-thirds of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. The centerpiece bill, Intro 1253, requires certain large buildings over 25,000 square feet in size to reduce emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Landmark buildings like the Empire State Building and luxury buildings such as Trump Tower are included in the requirement, while others, including churches and apartment buildings with rent-regulated and affordable housing units, are exempt. The large buildings targeted by the bill make up only 2 percent of the city’s buildings but contribute 30 percent of emissions.

“Intro 1253 is the single biggest thing New York City can do to address climate change,” said Bill Lipton, director of the New York Working Families Party. “It will make us a national leader in climate policy while creating tens of thousands of good jobs.”

The bill creates a new Office of Building Energy Performance to oversee and implement the emissions cuts and includes penalties and enforcement mechanisms to ensure building owners meet the standards. It is believed to be the first municipal mandate that sets limits on emissions from existing buildings in alignment with the Paris Agreement goals.

“The Climate Mobilization Act is a down payment on the future of New York City — one that ensures we lead the way in the ever-growing fight against climate change,” added Council Member Costa Constantinides, Chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection. “Today, we sent that message to the world by enacting the boldest mandate to reduce carbon emissions, tackling one of the biggest drivers of climate change.”

In dismissing New York’s climate liability suit against five oil companies last year, a federal judge used the argument that the city bears some of the responsibility for climate change because it uses and benefits from fossil fuels. The city has appealed the dismissal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing it is seeking not to regulate the emissions from fossil fuels but recoup damages caused by a product the companies knew to present danger to the climate.

At the time, the city estimated its climate adaptation costs at $20 billion, but also acknowledged that number will likely rise. That number does not include the recently announced plan to “flood-proof” lower Manhattan by extending the shoreline into the East River, which is estimated to cost $10 billion.

While the city wrestles with those costs and who pays for them, it has also moved ahead to tackle the problem of its own emissions.

Other bills passed Tuesday require some new buildings to have  “green roofs” covered in vegetation, solar panels or small wind turbines; another instructs the city to study the feasibility of  shutting down 21 gas-fired power plants and replacing them with renewable generation; and one that obligates the building department to include wind turbines in its consideration of renewable energy technologies and to authorize large wind turbine installation in appropriate locations.

“To say the least, we would like our national government to focus more on how to stop global warming, but in the meantime, the City of New York is doing all we can,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

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