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New York City slashes its biggest source of carbon emissions

NYC acts to cut carbon emissions
NYC takes aim at its biggest source of carbon emissions 01:05

Trump Tower, as well as other big glass-clad buildings, must stop their polluting ways, New York City lawmakers say. The City Council on Thursday passed a slate of bills aimed at cutting buildings' carbon emissions.

The laws apply to nearly all large buildings, but they will have an outsized impact on commercial construction because such structures have the highest emissions. An analysis from ALIGN-NY, an environmental group that supports the legislation, found that just 2 percent of the city's buildings consume 45 percent of its energy. 

"These are New York City's largest buildings, over 50,000 square feet in size, which primarily consist of a mixture of luxury apartments, commercial buildings and multi-family housing developments," the group said in a 2015 report. Trump Tower emits more carbon than 92 percent of city buildings, and Trump International Hotel and the Mayfair Hotel are not far behind, according to ALIGN-NY.

The new rules are among a package of environmental protection laws enacted Thursday, including phasing out the city's fossil-fuel burning power plants, covering some buildings' roofs with trees or greenery and making it easier to build wind turbines. It marks the culmination of a decade of efforts to curb building emissions in America's biggest city. The package passed overwhelmingly, with 45 lawmakers voting in favor and two against.

"We're going to send a message to the rest of the world that this is attainable. And other cities can take this legislation and implement it elsewhere. We expect other cities to follow New York, as they always do," the bill's primary sponsor, Council Member Costa Constantinides, said on its passing.

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Big buildings must be more efficient

Starting in 2024, New York City buildings over 25,000 square feet (about the size of a six-story apartment building) will be required to curb emissions; emissions must decline by 40 percent by 2030 and by 80 percent by 2050. Less aggressive restrictions were set for hospitals, houses of worship and rent-regulated housing.

Some landlords and apartment owners say that requiring energy-saving upgrades will push the city's cost of living even higher. One coop president told the New York Daily News that the bill would "bankrupt us, and kill the middle class."

But supporters of the bill, including many renters, say the cost of climate change can't be compared to potential rent increases. Rachel Rivera, a 40-year-old native New Yorker, said she nearly lost her daughter during Superstorm Sandy six years ago. Rivera had put her daughter, then 6 years old, to bed in their top-floor apartment. Minutes later, the apartment's ceiling, buckling under Sandy's heavy rain, caved in. The experience turned Rivera into an activist with New York Communities for Change, one of many groups that pushed for the bills.

"New York City is already sinking as it is, and it's going to be worse. There will be more superstorms like Sandy that hit New York," Rivera said. "My concern is if we don't get off the dirty energy, we can't continue to worry about all this other stuff, we don't have a future. Things already are expensive as it is."

"First of its kind"

"This legislation is the first of its kind worldwide — there is no city that has set pollution standards on existing buildings," said Pete Sikora, climate campaigns director for New York Communities for Change. "And we are thrilled, because not only does it slash pollution at the scale of the climate crisis — the level of cuts needed to give humanity a fighting chance at avoiding catastrophe worldwide — it also creates many thousands of good jobs in the process."

Other U.S. cities may look to emulate New York in reducing building emissions. Hundreds pledged to cut their carbon emissions at a climate summit late last year. If the dramatic cuts that scientists say are necessary are to be met, cities will need to not only make new buildings environmentally sound, but also tackle existing buildings.

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Buildings and other structures are responsible for about 40 percent of carbon production in the U.S., but in dense cities it's the chief emitter. Buildings in New York emit nearly 70 percent of its greenhouse gases, the mayor's office recently reported.

When it comes to carbon emissions,"The biggest piece is what's the [building's] heating and cooling equipment. A lot of times we're using older technologies that are not as efficient," said Jacob Corvidae, a principal in the buildings practice at Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank focused on sustainability.

Improving buildings' energy efficiency could mean switching out oil or gas furnaces for heat pumps, which are powered by electricity, or putting insulation around pipes and windows, to prevent hot or cold air from leaking. Older buildings also typically benefit from a wholesale replacement of the roof or windows. The bill leaves the choice of which improvements to make up to building owners.

Making buildings more efficient also has other positive effects, Corvidae noted. "People say, 'We should build a lot of renewables in the city.' But if you do things like efficiency first, you don't need to spend as much on building solar panels, because you're not using as much energy," he said.

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