Program Recap: Looking Forward and Looking Back: The Path to Deep Emissions Reductions in New York City’s Buildings

By Meredith Dickerson, Policy Intern

On May 20, 2019, The City Bar’s Environmental Law Committee and the NYC Climate Action Alliance, with co-sponsorship by the Energy Law and International Environmental Law Committees, hosted Looking Forward & Looking Back: The Path to Deep Emissions Reductions in New York City’s Buildings. The conference celebrated and built upon the collaborative efforts that played an essential role in passing Local Law No. 97 of 2019 — a first-of-its-kind piece of legislation that is a part of New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act which requires city buildings exceeding 25,000 square feet to meet strict emissions limits beginning in 2024.

Addressing Climate Change with First-of-its-kind Legislation

Following an introduction by Environmental Law Committee Co-Chair Amy Turner, keynote speaker John Mandyck, CEO of Urban Green Council, discussed Urban Green’s 80×50 Buildings Partnership—a collaboration of energy market experts and consultants, commercial and residential owners/managers, religious organizations, social justice community advocates, institutions, and others. New York City has set the ambitious goal of reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. In order to help accomplish this, the Partnership works to reduce emissions from the city’s primary source of energy consumption: buildings. New York’s buildings represent nearly 70% of total carbon emissions citywide. As ambitious as the 80×50 goal may seem, Mandyck reminded participants that the impact of climate change and extreme weather conditions will be even more devastating if we do not take ambitious action.  

Paving the Way to Compliance

Keynote speaker Nick Widzowski, Legislative Director for Councilmember Costa Costantinides, discussed the law’s alternative compliance pathways for rent-regulated and other affordable housing buildings, houses of worship, hospitals, and landmark buildings. The law specifies prescriptive measures that certain of these buildings, including buildings containing rent-regulated housing, must complete in an effort to reduce building greenhouse gas emissions without driving rent increases in rent-stabilized buildings by the more costly improvements that would be required by Local Law No. 97’s main compliance pathway. The law also creates a new office within the NYC Department of Buildings: The Office of Building Energy and Emissions Performance. The Office will oversee the implementation of the new law, which includes creating methods to assess building energy use. Also included in the Climate Mobilization Act is Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE ) financing, now codified as Local Law No. 96 of 2019. The PACE program provides low-interest loans to finance energy efficiency and green energy through a special assessment on a building’s property tax bill.

Looking Forward

Keynote speaker John Lee, Deputy Director for Buildings and Energy Efficiency at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, outlined what the Climate Mobilization Act is positioned to accomplish by 2030. The highlights included: reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 6 million tons, creating 26,700 jobs, avoiding 150 hospitalizations per year, and preventing between 50 and130 deaths per year. Local Law No. 97, which sets greenhouse gas emissions limits for large buildings, penalizes buildings subject to the law $268 per ton of carbon emissions that exceed the building’s annual limit. With the new law come plans to study and potentially implement a carbon trading system that would allow buildings which exceed the annual emissions cap to purchase carbon credits from buildings that produce less than the limit allows. In addition, city programs such as NYC Retrofit Accelerator and Community Retrofit NYC offer free advisory services aimed at identifying and streamlining efficiency improvements.

Bringing the Right Voices to the Table

The morning panel, Building Consensus on Building Emissions, moderated by Alexis Saba of Sive, Paget & Riesel, P.C., focused on inclusive efforts that helped foster consensus around Local Law No. 97. Panelists also discussed unresolved issues left behind in the mandate legislation. The panel featured Pete Sikora of New York Communities for Change, Jared Rodriguez of Realty Operations Group, and Cecil Corbin-Mark of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Discussions centered around including affordable and rent-stabilized housing tenants in the conversation to ensure that rent hikes would not result from the mandated emissions caps. Panelists discussed the interplay between Local Law No. 97, a New York City law, and New York State rent stabilization laws, which allow owners of rent-regulated buildings to raise rents following a “Major Capital Improvement” (“MCI”) to a building, which would have the effect of driving up rents in rent-regulated apartments as building owners retrofitted their buildings to comply with Local Law No. 97. The panelists remarked that they were waiting until the end of the New York State legislative session to see how building retrofit requirements such as those in Local Law No. 97 might interact with potential reforms to state rent-stabilization laws. While discussing protecting the economic interests of Mom-and-Pop building owners, PACE loans were once again suggested as a way of financing retrofits affordably, without significant upfront investment by building owners who can’t otherwise easily absorb the cost of significant retrofits.

Financial Possibilities

The afternoon panel, How the Market Can Support Needed Building Retrofits, looked towards the significant work that remains in order to implement necessary building improvements required by Local Law No. 97. This panel, moderated by Katie Ullmann of Drift Energy, featured Fred Lee of New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation (NYCEEC), Sadie McKeown of Community Preservation Corporation, Donnel Baird of Bloc Power, Helen Chananie of Building Energy Exchange, and Lisa DeVito of Con Edison. Each panelist discussed how their organization is contributing to making retrofits both possible and profitable. In addition to financing PACE loans and providing advice to projects undergoing retrofits, organizations are underwriting energy savings into mortgages in order to incentivize efficiency improvements. Organizations are also offering several outreach and education programs aimed at informing building owners of the requirements of Local Law No. 97 and providing them with options to begin improvements immediately.

Concerns and Challenges

The program concluded with an open discussion, facilitated by Tim Mealey, Senior Partner & Managing Director of the Meridian Institute. The discussion featured panelists Adriana Espinoza of the New York League of Conservation Voters, Kevin Healy of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP and Co-Chair of the City Bar’s Environmental Law Committee, Adam Hinge of Sustainable Energy Partnerships, and Carl Hum of REBNY. Conference participants were offered the chance to ask questions and pose hypotheticals regarding the effects of Local Law No. 97. Panelists highlighted the importance of the implementation phase of this law, the necessity of comprehensive educational outreach to building owners and tenants, and the consideration of affordable housing. Throughout the program, panelists, speakers, and participants alike acknowledged the stringent requirements and the complexity of the new law. Participants engaged in an open, honest dialogue about these challenges and the need to act to reduce building emission in order to forestall the rapid and potentially devastating effects of climate change in New York City.

The May 20 conference was made possible with the support of the Ida and Robert Gordon Family Foundation.

Listen to audio of the program here

Note: This post was updated on May 30.