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John Petro

New York City Must Act Like a Global Leader on Climate Change

On a day when global leaders have assembled in Copenhagen to address climate change--to ask the citizens and industries of every nation to share in the responsibility of reducing carbon emissions--Mayor Bloomberg is backing away from a key component of a plan that would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the city's buildings.

The New York Times reported that Mayor Bloomberg is changing course because of intense opposition from building owners in the city. It seems that owners, whose buildings are responsible for 80 percent of citywide carbon emissions, do not feel that they should have to contribute to the global effort to avert a climate catastrophe.

"It's another unfunded mandate, and this is just not the time for it," said Stuart Saft, chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums.

Earlier this year, Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced a wide-reaching package of legislation that would have been the most ambitious effort of any state or local government in the U.S. to retrofit older buildings to be more energy efficient. While many cities across the U.S. regulate the energy efficiency of new buildings, New York was targeting emissions from its relatively old building stock. Forty-three percent of the city's buildings were constructed before 1939, and significant energy savings--$750 million dollars a year--could be realized city-wide if these buildings were retrofitted with the newest energy efficient windows, boilers, appliances, and lighting fixtures.

The package of legislation, to be voted on this week, still contains important provisions that will result in a greener city. However, it is disappointing that the most ambitious proposal, and the proposal that would likely create the most impact, will be abandoned. The legislation will still require building owners to undergo energy audits. These audits will identify which types of improvements will reap the most savings. The legislation originally included a provision that would require building owners to make any improvements that would pay for themselves in five years through lower energy bills. This is the piece of legislation that would have had the most impact and created the most green jobs. With the opposition of building owners, this provision has been abandoned.

As a result, there is no guarantee that building owners will do what is ultimately in their best interest. It seems that even with energy costs projected to continue rising, building owners do not want to make the types of investments that will lead to lower energy costs in the future.

The charman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums summed up building owners' short-sightedness: '"In this climate? Zero chance," Mr. Saft said. "No one wants to raise the operating costs of the building."'

The city could gain the support of building owners if it can lower the cost of the initial investment, and one way of doing this is to lower the cost of borrowing. Berkeley, California has pioneered a new approach to financing energy efficiency improvements. By using the city's authority to issue bonds, Berkeley has lowered the cost of borrowing for property owners who undergo green retrofits or install solar power panels, making these improvements much more attractive to property owners.

Another issue is the fact that many building owners will not enjoy all of the cost savings associated with retrofitting their building. These savings will be enjoyed by both the tenants, who will see lower electricity bills, and the owners, who will realize lower heating bills. However, only the owner will need to make the initial investment.

One way of addressing this concern is to come up with a city-wide certification system for green apartment units or office space. If an apartment unit is rated as meeting energy efficiency requirements, it will make the apartment unit more marketable to prospective tenants. These tenants will learn how much they can expect to pay per month in electricity and compare yearly energy costs with other, less efficient apartments.

However, in the end, if long-term sustainability is really a priority for New York City elected officials, and for city residents, what will likely be required is regulation. With an issue like climate change, where short-term costs are necessary for long-term gain, regulation is often the only effective means to enact real change. This is why President Obama is traveling to Copenhagen to call for global regulation of carbon emissions. With New York's status as a global city, it is vital that our elected officials act like global leaders and make the tough choices that will lead to a sustainable future.

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Posted at 1:23 PM, Dec 07, 2009 in Urban Affairs
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