The sustainable mayor?
In his first six months as mayor, Bill de Blasio has prioritized pre-kindergarten, affordable housing and banning horse carriages, with varying degrees of success.
One policy area he has yet to prioritize, according to some mainstream environmentalists, is sustainability.
It’s not for lack of ideas: As a candidate, he laid out an ambitious-looking program—“A Framework for a Sustainable City,” as packaged on his now-defunct campaign website—that embraces key elements of the lofty environmental agenda of his predecessor, like expanding the city’s investment in clean energy production, reducing air pollution and making every city-owned building “as green as is financially viable by 2020.” He also set a goal for zero waste in the city, improving water ecosystems and embracing smart grids and smart metering.
Recently, the New York League of Conservation Voters prodded the mayor to get moving on translating some of these promises into reality. The Environmen tal Defense Fund said de Blasio has “been silent” on sustainability in housing in particular.
De Blasio administration officials say the complaints are ill-founded.
“The mayor’s very committed to the agenda,” said Daniel Zarrilli, head of the city’s new Office of Recovery and Resiliency and acting director of the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, in an interview. “There are a number of programs on reduction of carbon emissions. There’s a massive expansion of resiliency efforts.”
Zarrilli points to the fact that the administration has expanded a carbon challenge program, introduced new building efficiency codes, and expanded an organic composting program that converts food waste to energy.
The mayor’s team also points out that Bloomberg had 12 years to build his environmental policy, whereas de Blasio has been in office six months.
Still, if the city plans to achieve the lofty goals set out in PlaNYC—Bloomberg’s longterm sustainability roadmap—there’s little time to waste.
“Achieving deep emissions reductions by mid-century would require consistent progress year in and year out,” says a December PlaNYC report. “Accelerating attainment of the PlaNYC 30 percent reduction goal by 10 years — reaching it by 2020 rather than 2030 — would put the City on a trajectory to achieve [an 80 percent reduction by 2050]. The sooner the City is able to get on a pathway to deeper reductions, the more likely it is to reach 80 by 50.”
Meanwhile, the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, the center of the city’s energy and environmental policy, has been without a full-time director since de Blasio took over and has seen an exodus of staff.
“It’s problematic for them and it’s problematic for [PlaNYC], because it’s the [Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability] that demonstrates the mayor’s commitment to the issue, which in turn makes the agencies pay attention,” said Marcia Bystryn, executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters in an interview with Capital.
Bystryn heads an influential political coalition in a state preoccupied with energy and the environment, and has prodded the mayor to move faster in those areas.
“We all know how government works,” she said. “Unless the mayor is perceived to value something, the agencies will not pay a lot of attention to it.”
Zarrilli, himself a former Bloomberg staffer, said a national search is underway for a long-term sustainability director, and said that the creation of the resiliency office, which he heads, showed that the new administration was not retreating from the city’s commitment to battling climate change.
“It’s not about the speed, it’s about the quality of the people we find,” he said.
While the De Blasio administration issued a progress report on PlaNYC in April, many of the initiatives mentioned were Bloomberg holdovers.
Buildings use between 75 to 80 percent of the city’s energy and as such are the biggest hurdle to reducing emissions. Local laws relating to building efficiency passed under Bloomberg required reporting on how much energy and water buildings consume, the first step to amending energy behavior.
Since the report in April, De Blasio expanded a city “carbon challenge” program, incentivizing multi-family homes to cut their energy usage.
Currently there are 38 million square feet of building space enrolled in the challenge, Zarrilli said.
Emily Lloyd, a Bloomberg administration veteran who is commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, rolled out significant new regulations earlier this year cutting pollution from char broilers and fireplaces, to the applause of environmental advocates.
De Blasio also expanded the green-roofing program which incorporates rooftop gardens and rooftop coatings to keep buildings cooler, thus using less energy for air conditioning. In April, the city adopted building codes to mandate better pipe insulation and efficient lighting at construction sites, as well as a bill that aims to encourage stair use by leaving stairwell doors open with magnetic devices. The city is also spending $23 million on replacing inefficient toilets.
Green-building experts want to see more.
“We’ve probably got some of the lowest-hanging fruit already,” said Russell Unger, director of the Urban Green Council, which has successfully advocated for a host of new, sustainable building codes. “Our standard construction practices are still well behind other leading cities.”
The group released a report in mid-July saying the city’s building codes allowed developers too much leeway to use unsustainable materials, specifically glass, that Unger said are “saddling future generations” with wasteful building “envelopes”—the industry term for walls, roofs, windows and doors.
Unger said new insulation and windows in the city’s building stock would go a long way toward cutting energy consumption. While that’s a major task, he said the city could do a lot just by retrofitting the buildings it owns. New York City is the biggest property owner in New York City.
“The mayor has massive infrastructure on the demand side,” Unger said.
Rory Christian, director of New York clean energy at the Environmental Defense Fund said one way de Blasio could marry affordability and sustainability was by making the housing authority a model for efficiency.
In an op-ed last month in Crain’s, Christian wrote of de Blasio, “He’s been silent on clean energy and energy efficiency. That’s a missed opportunity. Retrofitting buildings to become more environmentally sustainable would disproportionately help the most vulnerable New Yorkers.”
In an interview with Capital he was more forgiving, but still urged de Blasio to use his bully pulpit as well as his executive power.
“Energy efficiency in NYCHA, that would be a big deal,” Christian said. “He can not only lower overall operating costs but make a big difference in quality of life. Another thing he can do is make energy efficiency easy for the masses, and affordable.”
Zarrilli said, “The municipal buildings are a big focus of our energy efforts.”
Later this year, the administration will close a deal with Tangent Energy Solutions to install solar arrays on four city buildings in Staten Island and the Bronx that will provide 1.85 megawatts of power, or 2 million kilowatt hours a year—enough to power 245 homes, according to information provided by the administration.
The city also plans to break ground on a project that will convert more organic food waste into biogas, which National Grid will convert to pipeline quality gas for residential and commercial use. The city estimates the project could generate enough energy to heat 5,200 city homes and reduce carbon emissions equivalent to removing 19,000 cars from the road.
Still, environmental groups and energy efficiency advocates are hungry for a major policy vision, one that incorporates sustainability with the mayor’s stated mission to close the city’s economic gap.
Eddie Bautista, director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, says he’s giving de Blasio two more months before the lack of more dramatic actions sets off any alarms.
“If they’re taking more time than we’d like, I’m hopeful that it’s attributable to the depth and scope of what they’re planning to do,” he said.
On Sept. 21, environmental groups will host a “People’s Climate March” in advance of a United Nations summit on climate change in New York City.
Bautista says he’d like to hear the mayor’s grand vision by then.
“If this climate summit comes and goes and there’s not a real commitment, it will be a huge lost opportunity,” he said. “Time is ticking.”
This article appeared in the August issue of Capital magazine.