This article is published in our Perspectives section, featuring analyses and views by New Yorkers uniquely qualified to weigh in on high-stakes political debates, and may not represent the views of New York Focus. Pete Sikora is director of climate and inequality campaigns at New York Communities for Change.
New York City is a massive source of climate-heating pollution, emitting almost 50 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent each year. Like New York state, the city has not significantly cut its emissions over the past few decades. In fact, the city’s climate pollution rose between 2017 and 2019, in part due to higher energy use from hotter weather, a symptom of the climate crisis.
Thankfully, the city has enacted two world-leading policies in recent years. It passed Local Law 97, which requires large buildings—the city’s biggest polluters—to slash their emissions starting in 2024. And the city’s main pension funds, which control about $200 billion in investments, moved to divest from oil and gas corporations and invest in clean energy, which will help lead a shift in worldwide capital markets.
But there’s still a long way to go.
Here are the major elements of a Green New Deal for New York City. In the coming weeks, three environmental organizations—Food & Water Action, Sunrise Movement NYC and New York Communities for Change, will push candidates for Mayor and Council to commit to support this agenda. While it isn’t a complete list, it includes urgently needed actions the next city government can take to create good jobs, slash pollution, and remedy inequalities. Many of these actions can be taken unilaterally. Others will require cooperation by state and federal governments, which will take not just quiet statements of support from city leaders but aggressive public-facing lobbying.
About 70% of the city’s climate pollution comes from energy use in buildings. The most important priority, therefore, is to clean up the city’s one million buildings through increasing energy efficiency and eliminating fossil fuel use. Cutting gas-powered car and truck use and investing in electric-powered buses, subways, bikes and e-vehicles would address the second largest source of climate pollution, transportation emissions. At the same time, fossil fuel infrastructure—which powers a downstate electric grid that’s just 2% wind and solar as well as fossil-fuel-powered transportation and building systems—must be retired.
Creating Jobs by Cleaning up Wasteful, Polluting Buildings
Cleaning up our buildings by upgrading them to high energy efficiency—and transitioning away from fossil fuels in the process—would create tens of thousands of jobs in design, renovation and construction. As the grid converts to wind and solar power, buildings will need to reduce energy waste and convert to heating, cooling and hot water generated by energy-efficient electric heat pump technologies.
Now a model for cities the world over, Local Law 97 was pushed through the Council by Councilmember Constantinides and Speaker Johnson and signed by Mayor de Blasio in 2019. The law enacted a schedule of increasingly stringent limits on greenhouse gas emissions from large buildings, starting in 2024. To comply with the law, almost all large buildings will need overhauls in the coming decades, from new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to better insulation and LED lighting to air sealing—which means that in addition to cutting climate pollution, Local Law 97 will create tens of thousands of jobs. The Mayor’s labelled it the city’s “Green New Deal,” and that is not wide of the mark.
The large buildings covered by the law are over half of the city’s pollution from buildings, so Green New Deal job #1 of a new Mayor and Council is to enforce and fund the law. Meanwhile, the real estate industry, the city’s powerful lobby, bitterly opposed the law’s passage and has already tried to weaken it. Mayor de Blasio and his building commissioner, to their credit, have appointed talented, hard-working staff to administer the law, and a large educational program is in the works. Yet the law could still be sabotaged administratively by a future city government.
NYC isn’t known for the suburban-style housing dominant in the rest of the country. Nonetheless, there are about 500,000 one- and two-family buildings in the city. Almost all rely on fossil fuel boilers or furnaces for heating, cooling and hot water. Converting these buildings, as well as mid-size residential buildings and small commercial buildings, to high energy efficiency by taking them off fossil fuels will require new laws to compel action. Affluent owners should be required to upgrade to heat pumps and higher energy efficiency at the logical times for upgrade work: as their gas or oil boilers reach end of life or the building is sold to a new owner. New heat pumps cost in the ballpark of $20,000 – 30,000 for a one-family home, which along with simple energy efficiency improvements, is easily affordable to a buyer of a $1 million home. New laws must be structured to ensure that low- or low/middle-income homeowners or buyers do not face any additional costs they can’t afford.
Meanwhile, the richest owners—people like Mike Bloomberg who own one-family mansions— should be required to do much more. Their buildings should be overhauled to “passive house” standards, where the building is insulated so effectively that it uses virtually no energy. This level of work would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars (or perhaps even more in some cases), but that’s not a lot for the city’s super-rich. These kinds of requirements, like Local Law 97, would create tens of thousands of jobs in design, renovation and construction, which the city badly needs to recover from the COVID crisis. Until the state or federal government allocates the kind of funding needed to make this process affordable to all, these mandated upgrades should exempt low-income and low-middle income homeowners or buyers.
NYCHA, the city’s public authority, houses about 600,000 people. After decades of federal and state cuts, the system has an enormous backlog of capital maintenance. The sums needed are huge: estimates run to the range of $30-$60 billion in capital fixes to dilapidated apartments and buildings. NYC can’t raise and spend this money alone (remember: the state prevents the city from controlling its own taxes). The federal and state government must step up with the bulk of the many billions of dollars that are needed. Now that Democrats have taken the Senate, the city’s delegation and Senator Schumer should deliver the funding that’s needed. Republicans will be opposed, but federal budgets are moved through a reconciliation process that requires only a majority vote.
In recent years, to their credit, Mayor de Blasio and the Council greatly increased the city’s funding for NYCHA. Yet much more city funding is needed. As part of an overhaul, the city should raise NYCHA’s energy efficiency. The system has already made a credible start by implementing some energy efficiency projects and assessing its needs. The city will need to spend billions of dollars as part of an overall effort.
The gas industry’s propaganda has obscured the basic reality that gas stoves are a menace. The pollution from the gas burned in the stoves causes health problems, including raising asthma risks in children by 42%. The gas also fuels the climate crisis. Fortunately, better technology is now widely-available: induction stoves, which use a magnetic field to heat pots and pans. These stoves are more precise, safer and can also apply heat much faster, very useful for everyday tasks such as boiling water. The city should require all residential buildings to eliminate all gas use over time.
As a large landlord itself, the city should replace all gas stoves with induction stoves in NYCHA housing (and if electric bills increase, pay those slight costs for NYCHA residents as well). NYCHA houses about 600,000 people, and asthma is already a high risk for many families in these homes.
Landfill emissions of methane are a major source of climate pollution and methane is about 100 times as powerful a globe-heating gas as CO2. Aerobic composting slashes these emissions. Composting was only .03 percent of the city budget, but the city cancelled its initial roll-out of residential composting in budget cuts implemented after COVID-19 hit.
Currently, the city spends about half a billion dollars per year trucking solid waste to far-away landfills. An effective composting program, city-wide, is critical to reducing the city’s waste. It would also create jobs in the city, which the city should ensure are good, union jobs hiring from low-income communities of color into family-supporting positions.
While the city can’t control wages and unionization in the private sector workforce, it can push and pull various levers to maximize labor conditions, including good, union jobs. It should require that projects the city is funding through its various programs, including those above, implement job-quality standards that will ensure city funds don’t back poverty wages and benefits, and that hiring is maximized from low-income, communities of color into career-track jobs.
Ending Fossil Fuel Infrastructure
New York City currently relies on fossil fuels for about 70% of the energy it produces. That number will rise even higher when Indian Point, the nuclear plant in Westchester County, shuts down. It’s imperative that the next city government use every tool at its disposal to rapidly shut down fossil fuel infrastructure and replace it with renewable energy and energy efficiency. Under the lagging state policy of Governor Cuomo, utility-scale wind and solar development has stalled, so rapid state action to stand up renewable energy and retire fossil fuel infrastructure controlled by utilities are also vital.
Large California municipalities like San Jose are banning gas hook ups in new buildings and major renovations, opting instead for heat pumps. New York City should follow their lead and implement these energy-efficient alternatives to gas, which clean the air and cut pollution, typically at almost no extra cost.
New York City has strong legal authority over petroleum-based infrastructure. Less so over gas infrastructure and the electric grid, but here too, the city’s stances are influential in state decision-making processes. It’s a lot harder for the Governor to advance a polluting project if the Mayor and Council are agitating against it.
A new Mayor and Council should publicly and forcefully demand that Governor Cuomo, who controls the relevant state agencies, set in place a scheduled and rapid phase-out of all fossil fuel infrastructure. A just transition must include support for the workers dependent on fossil fuel jobs. This is a relatively small number of workers, but helping them by paying salary and benefits, plus money for retraining, as the state closes down the facilities they work at is basic fairness—and also helps maintain political support for the program. The city should push the state to achieve a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2035 at the latest.
Under the city’s streets lies an extensive, dangerous and polluting gas network, which occasionally explodes or asphyxiates people. There is also a large gasoline and heating oil distribution system, including gas stations for cars and trucks. While the state and federal governments control interstate pipelines, the electric grid, and utility scale power plant siting, the city controls its street-scape and has broad authority over petroleum-based infrastructure. All oil and gas infrastructure should be evaluated and systematically—and rapidly—retired. That would eliminate air pollution and hasten a transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles, while freeing land for better use, including manufacturing, parks, affordable housing, and energy storage.
New York state government – which in effect means Governor Cuomo – controls the siting and permitting for new power plants and pipelines. Right now, the Cuomo Administration is deliberating on two large new fracked gas power plants proposed for New York City: the Astoria NRG and the Gowanus Generating Station projects. National Grid is also building another large pipeline through Brooklyn to connect to an LNG facility (and seeks to charge utility ratepayers for it).
The siting process involves various administrative proceedings that a home municipality can heavily influence, for example environmental permitting and utility rate proceedings, which are used by Con Ed and National Grid to raise bills to pay for new pipelines. The next city government should throw every wrench it has in the gears of proposed gas projects.
The NYC pension funds control over $200 billion in investments. NYC is thus a major shareholder (and bondholder) in virtually all large corporations. Comptroller Stringer and Mayor de Blasio are moving to divest the pension funds from all fossil fuel investments, which means the city will sell off its investments in firms like Exxon.
The funds should also use their considerable voting power to make non-fossil fuel corporations move to 100% renewable energy and slash their pollution. Corporate directors are elected annually by shareholders, so the main vehicle for forcing climate action would be combining with other large funds to win shareholder ‘proxy fights’ over policies and internal corporate elections. The NYC funds scored a big victory recently when Comptroller Stringer led a proxy battle over the re-election of climate denier Lee Raymond to the JP Morgan Chase board. Working with other large investors, the funds can be a major force to re-shape globalized corporate actions.
The city contracts with the private sector for a major share of its services. This process is governed largely by state law, which limits the city’s discretion in purchasing and contracting decisions, in effect limiting the city from factoring climate impact into its decisions. The city’s next leaders should lobby hard to get these laws amended, so that they can use their considerable purchasing power for climate action. For example, New York City should stop doing business with insurance firms that underwrite coal mining, tar sand extraction, Arctic drilling and other polluting projects. The city could accelerate climate action by the private sector in many other areas in which it purchases goods and services by setting specific new purchasing, franchising and contracting processes into place.
Private utilities are more expensive and deliver worse service than public utilities, which are common in other states and cities. New York City’s new mayor and Council should take over the private utilities through municipalization, or, alternatively, through state action.
The Governor and Legislature always bash the private utilities after every blackout. They threaten to take them over, but never act on those threats. But the state could and should buy out the private utilities, and then transfer control over the assets to democratic control by New York City.
The city could also act unilaterally, by invoking municipal law through a process known as “municipalization.” It would require a ballot initiative and voter approval of a purchase, which could be funded through a large bond issue. If the city leaned hard on Albany, it could tip the scales toward eliminating the private monopolies and replacing them with public service.
The private utilities’ business models depend on maintaining the polluting status quo. And they frustrate the deployment of renewable energy, energy storage and energy efficiency. With the city’s encouragement, the state should move to public power. It could also act alone, with voter approval. These are expensive propositions, but public ownership would save the public money overall by cutting bills through increased efficiency and no longer paying for multi-billion profits and inflated c-suite pay packages.
New York City government offices and municipal infrastructure account for about 10% of the city’s electricity. Using its purchasing power, the city can drive demand for renewable energy development. Putting the city’s substantial purchasing power behind publicly owned wind and solar would be a step beyond symbolic leadership.
Currently, the city is moving to purchase electricity generated from dams in Quebec by supporting a large new transmission project that would route the electricity, produced by Hydro Quebec, to the city from Canada. But the approach has been widely criticized for failing to create green jobs in New York, violating the rights of First Nations, and being backed by Blackstone, a private equity firm closely connected to Mayor de Blasio. Instead, the city should contract for renewable energy through the New York Power Authority, a state agency that could build renewable power and transmission to the city. A logical source would be a large, new offshore wind farm or upstate solar farms.
Cars and trucks are the second biggest source of the city’s climate pollution. New York City should vastly expand mass transit, biking, and walking, while scaling down trucking and driving and accelerating the shift to electric-powered transit.
New subway service into more neighborhoods would be fantastic— and fantastically expensive. The city should instead focus on massively expanding bus service. Traditionally, politicians with a “windshield view” – the motorist’s perspective – have been unwilling to clear street lanes for buses. As a result, buses are too slow. It’s time for the city to move into the 21st century with dedicated bus lanes that are actually enforced.
Any Green New Deal policy must be equitably designed and implemented. This is particularly true with transit access, given the city’s long record of disproportionate underinvestment in bus and subway service in low-income areas and communities of color.
Low-income people and people of color rely heavily on bus service. These are the riders who should be prioritized—not drivers who choose to inefficiently move themselves around the city via large, private 3,000 pound steel boxes.
The city could cost-efficiently increase mobility by setting and enforcing many more bus lanes, restore previously-cut service and add more service on existing lines. The city should also increase its funding for subways.
The Mayor’s ballyhooed Vision Zero plan cut traffic fatalities, but has stalled out this past year, with deaths from car accidents once again climbing. The city should implement a range of proven street design changes throughout the city to slow vehicles and further reduce accidents, which would also cut climate and other air pollution from transportation.
Widespread street dining has been one of the few bright spots of the city’s implementation of public health protocols. As space previously taken by cars has been dedicated to dining, the city’s street scape has begun to feel a little more like a cool European city. Dedicated bus lanes and many more protected bike lanes are similarly needed for a more livable, healthier, sustainable city.
While the city’s Sanitation Department handles household trash, a often-shady system of private carting companies hauls away commercial building waste. The private system crisscrosses the city in overlapping routes that send trucks on longer trips than the more efficient, rational routes that the public system uses. The industry is also dangerous for its workers, prioritizing speed over safety, which leads to higher rates of injury and death.
To rationalize the system, the Council and Mayor enacted commercial waste zoning routes. The system will reduce the distance travelled by companies by simplifying routes. It should also lead to better quality, union jobs and reduce air pollution. This system should be implemented and improved over time, including where new legislation is needed.
The MTA owns over 5,000 buses. As of now, not even 15 are electric. Although currently, a new electric bus costs about $750,000— more than a new diesel bus—electric buses require less maintenance and are vastly less polluting. The MTA should stop purchasing new fossil fueled buses and switch to all-electric. Likewise, electric cars have high sticker costs but pay dividends in better air quality and maintenance. Current halting efforts to buy EVs for city agencies must be vastly accelerated with a simple rule: no new fossil-fuel powered vehicles, period.
The federal government controls interstate commerce and preempts states and municipalities from directly controlling the fuels used by cars and trucks. Under the Clean Air Act, California was grandfathered into being allowed to regulate emissions, and other states are allowed to opt into California’s system. 13 states, including New York, do so, and thereby effectively set a national standard along with California. But this standard is too weak. California is moving to ban the sale of new gasoline powered cars only in 2035. That’s far too late. In the next few years, electric cars will no longer be any more expensive than traditional cars.
As the climate crisis accelerates, either the states, led by California, or the federal government, through executive authority held by the President and his agencies, should ban sales of new gas powered cars in the mid-2020s. Since gasoline powered cars last an average of 11 years on the road, by 2035 the vast majority of vehicles would become electric. The federal government should also subsidize this transition for lower-income, car-dependent drivers. Electric trucking technology is a little bit behind electric cars, particularly for long-haul trucking, but a rapid transition should also be mandated in trucking.
Launch a New York City Green New Deal
These items are not a comprehensive list of all the climate actions the city should take, of course. But they form the backbone of any Green New Deal for New York City worth the name.
Like the state, the city has enacted legislation which nominally commits it to slashing climate pollution at the pace of the Paris climate agreement (45% cuts by 2030 and over 80% cuts by 2050, relative to 1990 levels of pollution). But New York has a history of missing its own climate commitments. To turn these objectives from rhetoric into reality, the city must enact the agenda laid out above.
The city lacks many policy tools at the state’s disposal. New York City doesn’t control its own taxes, except for property tax. It doesn’t control rents, wages, most working conditions or benefits like health care. It doesn’t run the Metropolitan Transport Authority, and it has to seek the state’s permission to run its schools. It doesn’t control the fuels that cars and trucks use on its streets. Or the source of power on the electric grid. Or the electric grid itself.
But as we’ve seen, New York City retains substantial authority to shift the economy off of fossil fuels and into a fair, more just future. And in areas it does not directly control, the city government must press hard for state and federal action using all the political, institutional and coalition-building levers at its disposal.
The climate and inequality crisis is deepening. There’s no time left to waste. New York City must go bold. Which candidates are willing to commit to support the Green New Deal for New York City to further these policies in City Hall—and which are not—will be telling.