THE GBCA TRANSFORMATION: New York City’s building emissions laws set an example that Australia would do well to follow.
Gina Bocra, Director of Sustainability, Department of Buildings, NYC (USA), said cities will be the turning point for collective change in mitigating climate change.
But there are challenges, including a need for stronger data to inform policy decisions, a need to consider social and economic justice when we think about environmental justice, and a need for ongoing education. The general public, including most building owners, does not understand how much their buildings contribute to carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions, she said.
On Wednesday, Ms Bocra addressed the audience at the Green Building Council of Australia’s Transform conference held at the Roundhouse at the University of New South Wales to outline the Big Apple’s plan to net zero. .
Speaking via video link, Ms Bocra said that in the Big Apple, a penalty of US$268 (about A$358) is charged for each metric ton (tonne) of CO2e over the limit.
The first tier of emission limits apply from 2024 to 2029, with stricter limits from 2030 to 2034, when the financial penalties also become higher.
Why $268? Because it’s the estimated “social cost” of carbon, Ms. Bocra said, something that will become much more expensive over time.
Cities around the world are beginning to implement their net zero and decarbonization plans, 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 to reduce greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050. This includes:
- 40% GHG reduction by 2030, compared to the Sydney Green Plan’s 70% reduction by 2030
- 80% reduction by 2050 – compared to Sydney’s target of net zero emissions by 2035
- 70% renewable energy by 2030 – against Sydney’s target of 50% renewable energy by 2030
By 2030, NYC’s Climate Mobilization Act of 2019 aims to achieve:
- A reduction of 6 million tonnes of CO2e
- 26,700+ jobs created
- 150 hospitalizations avoided per year
- 50 to 130 deaths avoided per year
In 2016, buildings in New York produced 51.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2E). The goal of the 80×50 scenario is 11.8 MtCO2E by 2050. The New York City Building Emissions Act is also part of the package:
- Local Law 97 of 2019 limits GHG emissions to approximately 50,000 of the largest buildings in the city (2,323 m2 or more)
- Rent-regulated buildings are not subject to emission limits, but to prescriptive measures and a single report to be submitted in 2025
- Buildings must start meeting caps by 2024
Some challenges include that policies need to be informed by strong data and that policies need to support social and economic justice as well as environmental justice, for example whether low-income tenants and landlords can afford fines.
And most building owners don’t understand how much their buildings contribute to emissions.
The average person doesn’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it, Bocra said. So some building owners in New York are delaying decarbonization action to see if regulations change, rather than comply.
“Unfortunately, some owners are waiting to see what kind of regulations we produce. And they hope that we will create an easier path for them to comply, instead of making improvements to their buildings.
She quoted a speech by Greta Thunberg, Almost Everything Is Black and White, London 2018: “People keep doing what they do because the vast majority have no idea of the consequences of our daily lives, and they don’t unfamiliar with the rapid changes required.
According to the UN, cities concentrate 78% of our energy consumption, 55% of the world’s population, produce more than 60% of GHGs, even though they occupy only 2% of the world’s surface.
“Cities will be what will change our course,” she said.
“Nothing is going to change unless we start seeing the impacts of climate change on a very personal level in our cities where we live.”
And this is what we are witnessing, more and more.
NYC and Sydney (and many other parts of the world) have experienced climate impact events in recent years that have claimed lives and destroyed homes and infrastructure.
Last year, Hurricane Ida swept along the east coast of the United States, flooding New York and killing 13 people. In Australia, bushfires and floods are creating dangerous environments for our communities across the country.
“We are starting to see the impacts of climate change more easily in the cities we live in,” Ms Bocra said.
Besides a financial penalty, how does the NYC Department of Buildings help building owners and operators cross the line?
Support for building owners includes the NYC Accelerator, which provides free technical support, training and resources to building owners. ConEd and National Grid Incentives are financial incentives for energy efficiency in commercial and multi-family buildings. Additionally, NYSERDA Funding offers cost-sharing programs for commercial and multi-family buildings.
New York is not the only American metropolis to impose a financial penalty on CO2e emissions. Boston, Washington and St Lewis are among others, she said.
Financial penalties like in New York are one of many avenues governments can take to price carbon, all leading to similar results. Other methods apply a price for each metric ton of CO2, and not just for quantities of carbon above a benchmark like in New York.
Similar to Australia’s now defunct carbon tax, which only lasted two years (despite its effectiveness: emissions from companies subject to the scheme fell by 7%), carbon pricing consists of the government imposes a financial penalty that emitters must pay for each metric ton of CO2e they emit.
This incentivizes companies to take actions 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 of the external costs of CO2 equivalent emissions onto those responsible. Costs that the public would pay in other ways – such as property damage from floods or bushfires, or damage to human health from heat waves and drought.
“Carbon pricing can help countries meet their climate goals and support a green recovery,” says the OECD’s report on Carbon Pricing in the Time of COVID-19: What Has Changed in Countries? G20 economies? October 2021
“Explicit carbon pricing (through carbon taxes and emissions trading systems) encourages citizens and investors to make cleaner choices, while mobilizing government revenue.”
A total of 65 carbon pricing instruments are now operational around the world, covering over 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions and generating US$53 billion (over A$70 billion) in revenue.
“The potential of carbon pricing is still largely untapped, despite the fact that it can be effective in spurring decarbonization,” World Bank Global Director for Climate Change Bernice Van Bronkhorst said in a statement. press last year.
Australia does not charge an explicit carbon price. Fuel excise taxes, an implicit form of carbon pricing, covered 22.4% of emissions in 2021, unchanged since 2018, according to the OECD.
But Ms Bocra hoped more cities would start to spread.
“We hope our success with this program in New York can be replicated in other cities.”
But she stressed that the time to act has already arrived.
“Will this law take us far enough, fast enough?… The window of time we have is closing.
“The world is sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe,” she said, citing comments by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week.