Making New York the Greenest City in America


Last week, President Obama shocked the world when he announced a plan to reduce carbon emissions with China. Suddenly, the world’s two biggest polluters got on the same page on climate change.

Here in New York, climate issues have been a focal point of our policies. Mayor Bloomberg started us thinking about the city of 2030 and its needs with his PlaNYC; in his first year in office, Mayor de Blasio announced a bold agenda to achieve an 80 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2050. A cut of this size and scope requires minimizing emissions from vehicles, lowering electricity usage and, importantly, cutting back on heating and cooling waste shed by both residential and commercial buildings.

The silver bullet to radically lowering emissions is in the hands of owners of tens of thousands of buildings across the city’s landscape. How we encourage their actions is critical.

According to the mayor’s plan for lowering emissions “One City, Built to Last” heating and cooling of buildings accounts for 75 percent of all New York’s greenhouse gas output. For landlords to invest the capital in reducing their carbon footprint it has to make economic sense.

New technologies certainly lower energy usage, but the greatest impact comes when building owners tackle generations-old inefficiencies that are often hidden behind the sheetrock in individual apartments and offices.

Across New York, there are tens of thousands of buildings whose heating and air conditioning systems are old, outdated, failing or just inefficient.

According to a Housing and Vacancy Study published by the NYC Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, more than 25,000 public housing apartments had heating equipment breakdowns in 2008, with that number rising to more than 43,000 in 2011—a 72.8 percent increase in three years.

The Pratt Center for Community Development estimates that retrofitting just half of the city’s 650,000 small homes could save $255 million per year in energy costs and could create 1,500 jobs. Imagine the impact of concentrating on the many older, high-occupancy tenant buildings.

What few understand is that, like a human body, critical operating systems of buildings — its heating, ventilation and cooling systems, along with the pipes and insulation — must be tended to. A building constructed from 1950 to 1960 is now over half a century old.  How will the average human body age as it hits 55 or 60 years old? This is a principle that extends for buildings as well.

When the office you work in was constructed, the original insulated piping systems were expected to serve their purpose for 40 to 50 years.  But once those office walls are sealed, few will ever think of them again.  Typically as pipes reach the end of their life span, their insides calcify with arterial wall plaque and water leaks, leading to dangerous mold on unseen insulation and on plaster. This coincides with dramatically increased energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

For New York to achieve the mayor’s bold climate objectives, let’s consider how to push forward retrofitting both public and private buildings across the city. The mayor’s office says this plan will result in a minimum of $8.5 billion in energy savings for landlords and the creation of more than 3,500 jobs over the next ten years. Those numbers prove this is a worthy investment in our future.

While city planners often focus their attention on large and dramatic infrastructure agendas, this plan is both significant and achievable because of its decentralized simplicity, if left in the hands of the private sector.  What government must determine is how to best encourage and incentivize action sooner.  We owe it to future generations to move ambitiously on the mayor’s vision of being the greenest city in America.

Patrick Dolan, Jr. is the President of the Steamfitters Local Union 638.