GBCA’S TRANSFORM: New York City’s buildings emissions laws are setting an example that Australia would do well to follow. 

Gina Bocra, chief sustainability officer of NYC department of buildings (USA) said that cities will be where the turning point of collective change in climate mitigation happens. 

But there are challenges, including a need for more robust data to inform policy making decisions, a need to consider social and economic justice when we think about environmental justice, and a need for further education. The general public, including most building owners, don’t understand how much their buildings are contributing to carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions, she said. 

Ms Bocra on Wednesday addressed the audience at the Green Building Council of Australia’s Transform conference held at the Roundhouse, University of New South Wales to lay out the Big Apple’s plan towards net zero. 

Speaking via video link Ms Bocra said that in the Big Apple, a penalty of $US268 (around $A358) is charged for every metric ton (tonne) of CO2e above the limit.

The first level of emission limits apply from 2024 until 2029, with tighter limits from 2030 to 2034, when the financial penalties also become higher. 

Why $US268? Because this is the estimated “social cost” of carbon, Ms Bocra said, something that will become much more costly as time goes.

Cities across the world are starting to put into action their plans toward net zero and decarbonisation, harnessing the power of partnerships, education and legislation. 

Ms Bocra presented New York City’s roadmap to 80×50 (OneNYC 2050 Plan and NY State CLCPA), outlining the ambitious but achievable commitments the city of 8.8 million has made towards reducing greenhouse gases 80 per cent by 2050. This includes: 

  • 40 per cent GHG reduction by 2030, compared to Sydney Green Plan’s 70 per cent reduction by 2030 
  • 80 reduction by 2050 – compared to Sydney’s goal for net zero emissions by 2035 
  • 70 per cent renewable energy by 2030 – compared to Sydney’s goal of 50 per cent renewable by 2030

By 2030, NYC’s Climate Mobilisation Act of 2019 aims to achieve: 

  • A reduction of 6 million metric tons of CO2e
  • 26,700+ jobs created 
  • 150 hospitalisations avoided a year 
  • 50 to 130 deaths prevented a year 

In 2016, buildings in NYC produced 51.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2E). The goal for the 80×50 scenario is 11.8 MtCO2E by 2050. NYC Building Emissions Law is also part of the bundle:

  • Local Law 97 of 2019 caps GHG emissions at approximately 50,000 of the city’s largest buildings (2323 m2 in size or greater) 
  • Rent regulated buildings are not subject to emission limits, rather, prescriptive measures and a one-time report to be submitted in 2025 
  • Buildings must start to meet caps by 2024 

Some challenges include that policies must be informed by robust data and that policies need to support social and economic justice as well as environmental justice, for instance whether low-income tenants and homeowners can afford the fines. 

And most building owners don’t understand how much their buildings are contributing to emissions. 

The average person doesn’t know what is wrong or how to fix it, Bocra said. So some building owners in NYC are delaying action towards decarbonisation to see if the regulations change, rather than complying. 

“Unfortunately, some owners are waiting to see what kind of rule-making we produce. And they are hoping that we create an easier pathway for them to comply, instead of making improvements to their buildings.” 

She quoted from a Greta Thunberg speech Almost Everything is Black and White, London 2018: “People keep doing what they do because the vast majority doesn’t have a clue about the consequences of our everyday life, and they don’t know the rapid changes required.” 

According to the UN, cities are where 78 per cent of our energy consumption lies, 55 per cent of the world population, producing more than 60 per cent of GHG – despite that they take up only 2 per cent of the worlds surface. 

“Cities will be what changes our course,” she said. 

“Nothing is going to change unless we start seeing the impacts of climate change at a very personal level in our cities where we live.” 

And that is what we are witnessing, increasingly.

Both NYC and Sydney (and many other regions in the world) have experienced climate impact events over the past few years that have claimed lives and wrecked homes and infrastructure.

 Last year Hurricane Ida travelled up the east coast of US, flooding NYC, claiming 13 lives. In Australia, the bushfires and floods are creating hazardous environments for our communities across the country. 

“We are beginning to see impacts of climate change more readily in the cities we are living in,” Ms Bocra said. 

Apart from a financial penalty, how is the NYC department of buildings helping building owners and operators get across the line?

Assistance for building owners include the NYC Accelerator, which offers free technical assistance, training, and resources for building owners. ConEd and National Grid Incentives are commercial and multifamily building energy efficiency financial incentives. Also, NYSERDA Funding offers cost-sharing programs for commercial and multifamily buildings. 

New York City is not the only US metropolis putting a financial penalty on CO2e emissions. Boston, Washington, and St Lewis are among others, she said.

Financial penalties like in NYC are one of several paths that governments can take to price carbon, all leading to similar results. Other methods apply a price for every metric ton of CO2, not just for amounts of carbon over a baseline as in NYC. 

Similar to Australia’s now-defunct carbon tax that lasted just two years (despite its effectiveness: emissions from companies subject to the scheme dropped 7 per cent), carbon pricing is when the government sets a financial penalty that emitters must pay for every metric ton of CO2e they emit. 

This acts as an incentive for the businesses to take steps such as switching to renewable energy or adopting new technologies or passive building solutions to reduce emissions. 

Putting a price on emissions helps shift the burden for the external costs of CO2e emissions back to those that are responsible for it. Costs that the public would pay for in other ways – such as property damage from floods or bushfires, or damage to human health through heat waves and drought. 

“Carbon pricing can help countries meet climate objectives and support a green recovery,” states the OECD report Carbon Pricing in Times of COVID-19: What Has Changed in G20 Economies? October 2021 

“Explicit carbon pricing (through carbon taxes and emissions trading systems) encourages citizens and investors to make cleaner choices, while mobilising government revenue.” 

A total of 65 carbon pricing instruments are now in operation around the world, covering over 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and generating $53 billion US (more than $70 billion A) in revenue.

“The potential of carbon pricing is still largely untapped, despite the fact that it can be effective in driving decarbonisation,” World Bank global director for climate change Bernice Van Bronkhorst stated in a press release last year. 

Australia does not levy an explicit carbon price. Fuel excise taxes, an implicit form of carbon pricing, covered 22.4 per cent of emissions in 2021, unchanged since 2018, according to the OECD.

But Ms Bocra was hopeful that more cities will start to catch on. 

“We are hoping that our success with this program in New York is something that can be replicated in other cities.”

But she stressed that the time to act has already arrived. 

“Is this law going to get us far enough, fast enough?… The window of time we have is closing.” 

“The world is sleepwalking to a climate catastrophe,” she said, quoting comments from the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week.

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  1. The need for incorporating new conservation technologies for buildings is a huge part of the reduction of carbon emissions. Primarily, conservation technologies can be applied now, without the build out of a renewable infrastructure. The reduction in building carbon footprint can be 30% if supported with the same vigor, publicity and funding sources as electrification. Electrification is planned for in 30 years. (maybe?) The operative word here is “PLANNED” Actualization is an entirely different matter, as political forces will certainly delay the process for funding and regulation.

    Conservation on the other hand is available immediately, and in most cases has a return on investment in a shorter period of time. The word seldom leaves the lips or the “authorities”, primarily because it is not as profitable to primary funding constituents. Citizens need to seek out “conservation technologies” to find their own sources of carbon emission reduction for their own circumstances. The escape from fossil fuel carbon emissions is a balance between developing and using renewable resources of electricity, nuclear, and green hydrogen, together with conservation technologies to reduce the need for energy in each building structure.