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NYC climate progress on ambitious emissions goals backslides as strategic plan sprawls

December 2, 2020 Yoav Gonen, THE CITY

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New York City’s greenhouse gas output increased between 2017 and 2019 — setting back hopes of cutting the emissions by up to 40 percent by 2030, a new environmental progress report shows.

Measured from the 2005 baseline set under the administration of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, emissions were down only 15 percent as of last year — after having decreased by 18.2 percent between 2005 and 2017, according to City Hall’s recently released OneNYC 2020 update.

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While the push to reduce emissions is a decades-long haul — with stakes raised last year by City Council legislation to cut greenhouse gases 80 percent by 2050 — the uptick raised concerns from environmentalists.

“It’s a little troubling that emissions have gone up rather than gone down — and we’re moving in the wrong direction on that front,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters.

She noted the correlation between climate change and air pollution on public health — a connection highlighted by the especially devastating death toll of COVID-19 in communities with poor air quality.

“This is something that the next mayor and the next Council have to prioritize — and we can’t just let the environment get cut every time there’s a difficult budget situation,” Tighe added. “The environment — I think people know now more than ever — is not a luxury.”

Extreme weather blamed

A detailed greenhouse gas inventory the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability is required to produce under city law shows where progress on reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change has lagged — and where it has excelled. The 2018 and and 2019 figures were released simultaneously.

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The emissions picture grew even more dismal between 2017 and 2018, the new figures show, with the decline from the 2005 starting point diminishing to just 13 percent before rebounding to 15 percent in 2019.

Emissions from natural gas used in the city’s buildings made up nearly half of last year’s 2 million increase in metric tons of greenhouse gas — a 4 percent increase compared to 2017.

Meanwhile, electricity usage in commercial buildings — formerly one of the top emitters — produced 46 percent lower emissions last year than in 2005, a significant contribution to the overall 15 percent reduction.

Emissions from passenger cars — now the largest source of the city’s air pollution — have decreased by only 1 percent since 2005.

City officials attributed the recent increase in greenhouse gas output to extreme weather, particularly in 2018.

They said that year saw an 18 percent increase in the number of extremely hot days compared to the year prior, as well as a 13 percent increase in woefully cold days — both of which lead to greater energy consumption from cooling and heating systems.

They noted that while overall emissions have been relatively flat under the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio — dropping half a percentage point from 2013 to 2019 — emissions from city government operations have decreased over the same period by 5 percent.

The officials also pointed to reforms they’ve embraced in recent years — including a commitment to renewable energy such as offshore wind, solar and hydro power.

“Hard choices remain if we are to succeed in halting the climate emergency before us, and New York City doesn’t back down from a challenge,” said Laura Feyer, a de Blasio spokesperson. “We have taken on the work of delivering necessary, first-of-its-kind policy and programs, and we will continue down that path.”

Delayed data

OneNYC is an annual progress report whose scope has broadened over the years since Bloomberg first released it in 2007 under the name PlaNYC, with a focus on the environment and transportation.

The original PlaNYC included an initial goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030.

After Superstorm Sandy walloped the city in 2012, resiliency played a larger role in the plan. In 2015, de Blasio added initiatives on the theme of equity and the economy, and now touts an overarching strategic plan for “building a strong and fair city.”

A hazy, hot August day during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The latest iteration of the plan, called OneNYC 2050 when it was released last year, includes dozens of goals and measurements on education, health and democracy, in addition to environmental objectives.

This year’s progress report was released Nov. 4 — more than six months late. It was among dozens of delayed reports that the administration said weren’t issued on time because of its intense focus on responding to the pandemic.

The new report’s data, metrics and narrative run at the latest through April 2020 — while some measures date back two or more years.

One measure tracking maternal childbirth complications — which the city aims to reduce by 50 percent by 2030 — only includes data through 2016.

In another lag, the progress report boasts that the Department of Sanitation offers organics collection services to more than 3.5 million people. But it doesn’t mention that plans to expand household composting have been scrapped — while budget cuts announced this year have temporarily halted the program through next June.

Hitching onto ‘Green New Deal’

Building on Bloomberg’s legacy and tapping into a national Green New Deal movement, de Blasio has styled himself a climate champion.

In April 2019, just weeks before de Blasio launched his ultimately failed campaign for president, he announced a host of climate actions that he dubbed the city’s version of a Green New Deal — the progressive proposal to combat climate change nationally.

The plan centered around City Council legislation that took aim at the emissions released from large private buildings and from city government buildings.

Under that law, buildings larger than 25,000 square feet must keep their greenhouse gas emissions below city-set levels starting in 2024. In October, the Council expanded the legislation to include certain buildings with rent-regulated units that had previously been exempted.

The same law also set the citywide goal for emissions reductions at 40 percent by 2030, up from 30 percent, compared to 2005 levels.

Pete Sikora, the inequality campaigns director for New York Communities for Change, said the focus on buildings’ pollution is monumental given that apartments, offices and other structures account for nearly two-thirds of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the city.

He said the legislation would also help spur the creation of green jobs.

“We’re not so focused on the moment to moment fluctuations [in greenhouse gas emissions],” said Sikora, who in January was appointed to the city’s new, 15-person Climate Advisory Board. “What we’re interested in is the policy.”

Sikora also credited city Comptroller Scott Stringer, a 2021 mayoral candidate, as well as de Blasio, for committing to divest the city’s five pension funds from $5 billion in holdings for fossil fuel companies.

City officials said in January they’re focusing on divesting from $3 billion held by three of the funds — after meeting some resistance from the police and fire pension funds — and that the effort is on track to be implemented next year.

While Tighe also hailed those measures, she sounded a note of caution over anticipated increases in greenhouse gas emissions in the short term.

The Indian Point nuclear power plant north of the city. Photo: Mihai_Andritoiu/Shutterstock

The Indian Point nuclear reactor in Westchester shut down its second of three units this spring, a carbon-neutral form of energy that will have to be replaced in the near future by something with a larger carbon footprint, experts say.

The reactor’s third unit is slated to shut down in April 2021, which will require another shift in energy sources.

Lack of hard numbers

Tighe also highlighted other metrics in the OneNYC plan that have struggled to move in the right direction.

The share of New Yorkers who live within walking distance of a park stayed at 81.7 percent from 2018 to 2019. The share of electric motor vehicle sales also stagnated over that time period at 1.4 percent — despite a goal to get to 20 percent by 2025.

Nilda Mesa, former director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, said she was troubled by the lack of hard numbers across a wide range of the metrics.

For the goal of developing a citywide network of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, the report says the office of resiliency “continued to explore avenues to introduce electric vehicle (EV) readiness legislation.” Mesa questioned exactly what that means.

For the goal of growing the green economy with “good-paying jobs and a skilled workforce,” the report says 100 people were enrolled in pre-apprenticeship training programs. But that’s a small number, according to Mesa, and the report provides no timeline to meet the goal.

For the Battery Park City South Resiliency project, an effort to protect against storm surge and rising seas, the progress report says about 50 percent of the design work had been completed as of April 2020. But Mesa noted the project had been in the works since Superstorm Sandy.

“As far as worldwide plans, this one is a heck of a lot longer and more opaque than other ones,” said Mesa, now a lecturer in sustainable development at the research university Sciences Po in Paris and adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

“If you’re going to look at it on a superficial level, people will say they’re doing so much because there’s this laundry list of stuff,” she added. “But if you dig deeper, it’s harder to see that.”

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