The history of our planet is one long story of change, and the history of humans is no exception. Humans change the world around them, change their ideas, change each other. But the change we want doesn’t come overnight. People fight for social change, fight for their rights, fight for their communities—and at every turn, other people will fight for the status quo.
We’re now at a time when we aren’t just fighting for a better and more just world: we’re fighting for the health of the world itself—and for the honor as a species to be able to exist in it. At the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, we know that change is happening one way or another. Either we change the way we live in order to fight for our future, or climate change will steal that future away from us and from those in the developing world who did the least to cause this problem to begin with.
That’s one fight we can’t afford to lose.
For New York, like many other big cities, the biggest front in this fight is the one that’s also a part of our identity: our skyline. Towering row upon row of dense, vibrant, chaotic, beautiful buildings. Because we drive so much less than other Americans, most of our contributions to climate change come from the energy used to heat, cool, and power our more than one million buildings. These buildings, spread across New York’s five boroughs, are responsible for nearly 70 percent of our city’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.
So, we decided to try a big solution to an even bigger problem. After putting the industry on notice in 2014, and years of careful analysis, technical support, and study, in 2017, Mayor de Blasio proposed a law, a mandate, a cap that would require the largest buildings in our city to make improvements to reduce fossil fuel use.
Roughly 50,000 buildings over 25,000 square feet in size are responsible for an astounding 40 percent of GHG emissions from New York City’s building sector, and we set out to make the transformation of those buildings the spear tip in this fight to redefine our built environment.
Designers, housing and environmental justice leaders, advocates for working-class families, labor leaders, and other global cities liked our proposed mandate for its ambition, precedent, and uncompromising commitment to protect affordable housing.
Others, who feared that their power and profits might be at risk, didn’t. The latter group, aligning fossil fuel companies and wealthy real estate interests, spent two years fighting it. And they almost won. Almost.
You might assume that this is the part of the story where we compromised. Where we watered down our bill to make it more palatable to industry groups. Where we admit that we went too far from the status quo.
Actually, this is the part where we dug deeper and we held the line. Along with some allies in the New York City Council, we argued that the future of residents now, and for generations to come in this great American sanctuary city, could no longer be compromised for carbon. We advanced a new, stronger bill that went after whole-building energy use, not just fossil fuels burned on site. The new bill mandated hard caps on building emissions, with deadlines starting in 2024 and real penalties for noncompliance that are equal to or greater than the cost of the retrofit work needed.
This spring, in a 45-2 vote, the New York City Council passed the Climate Mobilization Act, a series of laws including the buildings mandate, which amounts to the biggest climate solution enacted by any city, ever.
The mandate will cut six million tons of carbon dioxide by 2030. That’s like taking 1.3 million cars off the road every year. It will also prevent 43 premature deaths and 107 emergency room visits every year and create at least 26,700 green jobs.
I believe the cliché: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. But the change we need doesn’t happen without a fight. It takes years of work, countless hours of research, and—most importantly—thousands of conversations. It takes the recognition that there is no room on the sidelines, the recognition that every single one of us needs to rethink the way we live. But we made it happen here. And any other city can. More importantly, every other city must. If anyone tells you the Green New Deal is impossible, tell them to come to New York City.
Mark Chambers is the New York City Director of Sustainability.
New York is a member of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, a collaboration of leading global cities cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to 100% by 2050 or sooner. This is a seven-part series featuring bold actions by cities to accelerate progress toward carbon neutrality, based on CNCA’s Game Changers Report.