Most of my career has involved protesting, pressuring and arm-twisting politicians through grassroots campaigns, not praising them. So I don’t say it lightly: Bill de Blasio is the country’s best climate mayor. And it’s not even close.
Sure, it’s a lesser-of-evils award, since almost every other big city mayor has whiffed. But it’s important to tell the story of New York City’s recent climate victories, since celebrating real wins can help build momentum toward even bolder action.
Political media mostly paints de Blasio as endlessly inept — an image often contrasted with former Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was covered as hard-charging but ruthlessly effective. Both of those depictions get it wrong.
De Blasio failed badly in other vital policy areas, but he delivered on climate. On his watch, the city passed world-first requirements to limit climate-heating air pollution from big buildings and divested its mammoth pension funds from oil, gas and coal companies — policies other cities have just begun to adopt.
He didn’t do it alone. But as the climate crisis accelerates, people will look back on those achievements as de Blasio’s greatest legacy.
Yet even as de Blasio has taken the boldest climate actions of any U.S. mayor, the city’s advances remain vastly short of what’s needed. Eric Adams will need to build on de Blasio’s leadership and go even further to slash pollution and create jobs—which makes it all the more concerning that he just signaled he’s open to rolling back some of de Blasio’s accomplishments.
The best climate and jobs law in any American city
Fossil fuels keep the lights on and power the boilers, furnaces, and steam systems in almost all of New York City’s more than one million buildings. From One World Trade Center and other skyscrapers to small one family homes, energy use in buildings is responsible for about 70% of the city’s climate-heating pollution.
A new pollution-reduction standard, Local Law 97, passed in 2019, compels 50,000 of the largest buildings—just 5% of city buildings, but responsible for about half of the sector’s pollution or about one third of total NYC emissions—to clean up by slashing their greenhouse gas emissions.
Local Law 97 is the first law worldwide to set specific, enforceable pollution limits on buildings that require emissions cuts at the pace and scale of the Paris climate agreement. If all the large buildings covered by the law comply—and we should be cautiously optimistic that the vast majority will, given the fines that come with noncompliance—the law will slash emissions by over 40% by 2030 and over 80% by 2050. In the process, it will create tens of thousands of jobs in design, renovation and construction.
After the law’s passage, NYC immediately vaulted to the top spot on the annual rankings of all U.S. cities by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, the municipal ranking experts look to.
Worldwide, cities produce 70 percent of climate-heating emissions —and most of that pollution comes from buildings’ energy use. Local Law 97 is therefore monumentally important as the first law to truly limit this pollution. It’s akin to the first regulations that told factory owners they couldn’t just dump toxic waste in the nearest convenient river.
The law ends an era of looking the other way as buildings generate vast amounts of air pollution. Instead, it mounts a bold governmental response, which will also create tens of thousands of jobs locally. It’s action worthy of the label de Blasio gave it—a city-level “Green New Deal.”
Fossil fuel divestment by NYC’s pension funds turbo-charged a movement
Beyond pulling cash from dirty companies, pension fund divestment sends a powerful signal to markets. Nowhere is that more true than in New York City, whose 2018 pension fund divestment made global headlines: Wall Street’s home was done with big oil and gas.
In order to achieve the emissions cuts the world needs, all major finance capital needs to flee fossil fuels this decade, defunding the industry. The fossil fuel divestment movement had started on college campuses over a decade ago and spread like wildfire as activists took up its call. But by 2018, much of the relatively low-hanging fruit of small progressive college and institutional endowments had begun or completed divestment. Big funds warily eyed activists demands—and, even as they lost billions of dollars by sticking with fossil fuel investments already beginning to tank, sat on their hands.
New York City’s decision gave implicit permission to other large funds to act. The mythology of the market tells us that big investors are run by sophisticated, brilliant people. In reality, they often act like a big, dumb herd. Soon after New York’s divestment announcement, other big dominos began to fall, including London, which is divesting across all fossil fuels, and the world’s largest single fund, the $1.3 trillion Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund.
Alongside its ability to inspire further action, NYC’s dollar-for-dollar divestment matters too. New York City’s roughly $250 billion pension funds continue to dump enormous reserves of stocks and bonds in oil, gas and coal companies as they fulfill their commitment to divest from fossil fuels within five years. At the same time, the funds are investing billions more into clean energy. It’s a big shift of capital away from torching our planet.
Of course, de Blasio has left massive work undone on climate. The city has moved far-too-slowly to reduce pollution from cars and trucks, which generate about 28% of the city’s pollution, rightly angering mass transit and bike advocates. And it has hardly even contemplated setting requirements on its 900,000 mid- and small-size buildings not covered by Local Law 97.
The food the city buys for schools and other institutions should be more sustainable. Composting has seen budget cuts and poor implementation. Far too little has been done to address the overuse of plastics. NYC continues to allow gas in newly-constructed buildings, even as other large cities have already started to end gas reliance. The city doesn’t use its available powers to phase out large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure, such as local pipelines. Air pollution is far worse in low-income communities of color.
And New York City’s emissions have not dropped in recent years, nudging up or down, but not plunging as is necessary, worldwide, for the city’s very survival. However, one Administration sets the table for the next, and de Blasio’s achievement on Local Law 97 will slash pollution starting in Adams first term, in 2024, when its first limits kick in.
In contrast to de Blasio, other city’s mayors have mostly offered window-dressing, hyping up small advances while leaving unaddressed their cities’ overwhelmingly largest source of emissions—energy use in buildings. Many are too afraid to buck the powerful real estate industry lobbies in their various cities.
For example, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti labels his program a Green New Deal for L.A. Missing from this allegedly bold vision? Any actual requirements to cut pollution from buildings, LA’s largest single source of emissions. Same goes for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who hasn’t set requirements on buildings—Chicago’s top source of pollution by far—to slash emissions either. (Embarrassingly, the climate plan of the country’s third largest city still calls Rahm Emanuel mayor).
Other than New York, only D.C. and St. Louis have set pollution-cutting requirements on buildings at the pace needed to meet the Paris climate agreement. DC’s law passed a few months before New York’s, but did not set specific, enforceable requirements, instead triggering a process to subsequently set requirements. Both D.C. and St Louis are also behind New York in many other areas of municipal climate policy, and are consequently lower rated on ACEEE’s city ranking.
Hopefully other cities will leap ahead, but for now, New York City stands alone, on top.
Of course, De Blasio didn’t do it alone. Former Councilmember Costa Constantinides and Speaker Corey Johnson led the legislative charge for Local Law 97. Comptroller Scott Stringer made the critical decision to back divestment, and then-Public Advocate Letitia James’s backing was critical to inducing the mayor and comptroller to act. Zooming out further, climate movement activists, who built fierce and effective multiracial campaigns to win these policies, were the motivating force behind the victories.
Nonetheless, neither Local Law 97 nor divestment would have happened if de Blasio hadn’t pushed for serious action at the scale of the crisis. For that, he deserves real credit. He should have done far more, especially in his first term—but considering how little other mayors have done on climate, De Blasio’s achievements make him the best of the worst.
Adams should drive forward to solve the climate and inequality crisis – not take NYC backwards
Unfortunately, even as jobs and investment are beginning to be created at scale by Local Law 97, Adams’ recent comments to Politico signal that he may weaken the law. Adams’ spokesperson recited real estate talking points, referring to the law’s penalties as “unfair fines that punish efficient buildings.”
But the law sets pollution limits per square foot, which measures efficiency. Violating its first limits, which start in 2024, means a building, by definition, is not energy efficient. Indeed, any building violating the law’s initial 2024 requirements is a high-polluting energy hog.
That’s exactly why the law sets its initial pollution limits at a high level: to cut pollution from the dirtiest buildings. Many of those buildings haven’t even done the simple, easy bare minimums of energy efficiency. Such improvements – such as insulating heating pipes or installing LEDs – save money immediately, and pay for themselves within one or two years.
Adams’ spokesperson also said that the cost of upgrading many buildings covered by the law to cut their pollution is too high. Yet rather than raising costs, energy efficiency improvements lower operating costs. They cover their own costs over time. These comments, too, are at best misleading.
Undercutting the law administratively is the easiest path for Adams to take to gut Local Law 97. The new mayor wouldn’t need the new Council to go along by amending the law: the law arguably grants the Administration needed discretion in its enforcement, including to assess lower penalties. Low penalties would render the law largely toothless, which would please the real estate lobby, but endanger the results New Yorkers need, worsening pollution and economic inequality.
During the primary, Adams didn’t highlight climate policy in his mayoral campaign, and his platform was silent on key issues like buildings’ emissions. Over a third of the private campaign donations he received came from sources associated with the real estate industry. The real estate lobby, which bitterly opposed Local Law 97’s passage, is working to convince him to take the city backwards to pump up their short-term profits.
Now, despite an upcoming election that is non-competitive, Adams is a whirlwind of fundraising, including from many more special interests. None of this bodes well for serious climate action, which requires confronting those very interests. In the coming months, as he gets closer to taking over at City Hall, Adams should make clear he will not weaken Local Law 97 – and will enforce it to the fullest, not follow the wishes of the city’s deep pocketed real estate lobby.
Beyond enforcing Local Law 97 to the fullest to produce jobs and pollution cuts, which should be job number one for our incoming Mayor, there’s much more to do. Adams has promised to address the city’s social and economic inequalities. Climate action is an opportunity to deliver, including by upgrading affordable housing and improving mass transit.
Adams’ policies might also be shaped by the values he expresses as a passionate vegan. Among other positive actions, he has already signaled that his administration will take on the big food lobby by purchasing better, more sustainable food for schools and other public institutions.
With rare political leverage over New York’s new governor. Adams could also help push the state government into serious climate action, especially where NYC lacks the authority to raise and spend badly-needed funding. Adams has clearly endorsed congestion pricing, which is a good sign, even as new Governor Hochul immediately equivocated, troubling transit activists.
Climate and justice activists will be closely watching Adams’ moves – and pressing for serious action. Since buildings generate about 70% of the city’s pollution and cleaning them up is the largest source of new jobs and economic development, hopefully he will seek to build on de Blasio’s legacy, not wash it away.
In the end, whether or not de Blasio gets public credit, and notwithstanding his many failures in other areas, he ushered in huge advances in climate action that will generate tens of thousands of jobs.
The media may have missed it, and the competition was all too weak, but de Blasio quietly became America’s best climate mayor. The city and the world will need soon-to-be Mayor Adams to keep a good thing going.