Photo: Getty

“Decarbonize the buildings” may be among the least sexy phrases ever written. But it’s a wildly important thing to do if cities are to have any hope of addressing climate change.

On Thursday, New York City took a big step toward that goal with the passage of what it’s hailing as the first-ever building carbon targets bill in the world. That means the city’s biggest source of emissions must be slashed 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 as part of what’s been called the city’s Green New Deal. And it provides a blueprint for what other cities could do, potentially helping spur innovation.

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New York has more than a million buildings. Between heating, cooling, electricity, cooking gas, hot water, and other sources, buildings account for roughly two-thirds of the city’s emissions. So while things like congestion pricing and improving public transit matter for cutting emissions, they’re still a drop in the carbon-filled bucket of city living. The new legislation, introduced by New York Councilman Costa Constantinides, sets an ambitious agenda for cutting building emissions. The legislation passed the city council 45-2 on Thursday, after being strenuously opposed by real estate interests that chafed at the idea of having to shoulder the cost of the upgrades. Mayor Bill de Blasio has signaled he will sign it into law.

“This is where we have to start,” Constantinides at a press conference before the whole council voted on it.

Once in effect, buildings over 25,000 square feet—equivalent to a small-to-medium sized apartment building—would have to find ways to cut their emissions in line with the overall goal. The legislation doesn’t set any rules for how building owners should do that. But there’s no shortage of avenues for owners to choose from. It could mean installing energy efficient appliances, going from gas to electric stoves, or upgrading heating and cooling systems.

Costa Constantinides addresses supporters at a press conference ahead of the vote on the legislation.
Photo: Brian Kahn (Gizmodo Media)

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“The classic apartment in New York City, you know everyone’s lived in an apartment like this here, is so hot in the winter that you have to open up the window to cool it down,” Peter Sikora, the climate and inequality campaign director for New York Communities for Change, told Earther. “There’s so many old inefficient buildings in the city and all over the world so upgrading the energy efficiency, a crucial component of that, is actually making the building much more comfortable and livable. So that’s a huge plus for tenants.”

These types of upgrades are often performed by skilled trade unions, many of which back the bill as well as a host of environmental justice groups who see the legislation as a way to fight climate change and inequality. At the press conference ahead of the final vote on the legislation, members of these communities shared their stories of climate change and endorsed the bill for its transformative nature. Rachel Rivera, a member of New York Communities for Change, told the story of how her daughter who lived through Sandy still has recurring nightmares about the storm while her other daughter deals with chronic breathing issues due to dirty air to the point where the emergency room nurses know her name.

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“We need a Green New Deal,” she said. “ We need to make the city energy efficient and stop with [using] fossil fuels.”

The vast array of ways to meet the new emissions reductions could spur innovations in reducing buildings’ carbon footprints. And New York represents an ideal place for innovation to happen.

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“When you’ve got so many buildings looking for technologies and strategies to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, that kind of demand will spur innovation and new approaches,” Nilda Mesa, the director of Urban Sustainability and Equity Planning Program at Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development and former head of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability under de Blasio, told Earther.

Unions rallying in support of the legislation on the steps of City Hall.
Photo: Brian Kahn (Gizmodo Media)

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Those innovations could spread well beyond city limits. As the costs come down for, say for example, efficient air conditioning units and strategies become refined, other cities could reap the savings in both money and carbon emissions, particularly those in the northern part of the country with similar building stock.

“I think it’s sort of the birth hopefully of a new world in terms of how we view building emissions,” Zazie Beetz, an actress who was there to support Constantinides’ bill, told Earther. “We should celebrate this victory and use it as a catalyst for more to come.”

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The buildings bill is part of a broader suite of legislation that just passed, called the Climate Mobilization Act. In scope, it resembles what a Green New Deal can look like at the city level. The six pieces of legislation are create a renewable energy loan program, make it easier to install wind turbines, solar panels, and plants on roofs, and look at closing the 24 fossil fuel power plants within city limits.

But the real heft is the building regulations and its potential to be transformative not just for New York but the world. As more and more people move to cities, the race to decarbonize them becomes even more vital to slowing climate change. Sikora said other cities should take Constantinides’ bill and “copy, paste, and pass it tomorrow.”

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