Renovation
Energy Efficiency
Climate Change
Sustainability

Carbon neutral New York City: Regulating resilience into the city that never sleeps

Susanne Dyrbøl
Susanne Dyrbøl
30 March 2020

The Climate Mobilization Act puts New York City at the forefront of North America’s fight to reduce carbon emissions with new ground-breaking legislation.

New York City skyline with Manhattan skyscrapers at dramatic stormy sunset, USA.

Few images or scenery evokes a similar response as the New York City skyline. The city’s image has become synonymous with progress, diversity, ingenuity, and leadership. Since its humble beginnings as New Amsterdam in the 17th century, the city now ranks as the urban centre with the second-highest number of skyscrapers in the world, only surpassed by Hong Kong. It is also an old city, with the average median age of surviving residential buildings approaching 90 years.

While the city may be renowned for its iconic structures like the Empire State Building and communal areas such as Central Park, it has now taken another bold step to regulate for a more sustainable future. In 2019, the city passed new legislation that will put energy efficiency and green renovation front and centre to their ambitious climate agenda.

How New York City is taking deep renovation and the climate crisis seriously

In what may seem like a move counter to the federal government’s position, New York City officials passed the world’s most demanding emission laws for any city. Coordinated by the Mayor’s Office on Climate Policy and Programs, the city continues to fight against climate change and is backing up its goals with concrete actions. The OneNYC 2050 (New York City’s Green New Deal) campaign, seeks to face up to the challenges of tomorrow with bold decisions and innovative solutions. The goal is to ensure they protect their population, strengthen their communities, and become more resilient in the face of climate change.

Due to the dense urban setting of the city, heating, cooling, and electrification of buildings account for almost 75 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. As the city still relies predominantly on fossil fuel for generating electricity, officials identified energy performance in buildings as critical to meeting their climate commitments. The goal is to reduce emissions by 80 percent  by 2050 (called 80 x 50), which equates to eliminating 44.5 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

The city’s Climate Mobilization Act (CMA) is a package of regulations that attempt to improve the energy efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of its building stock. It applies to residential and commercial structures larger than 25,000 square feet (or 2,323 square metres). The regulations require owners to reduce emissions significantly over the next 30 years, but it also provides them with tools to achieve the official limits.

The Climate Mobilization Act of New York City

The baseline for measuring progress on emission reductions has been set to 2005. For building owners, real estate developers and other stakeholders, this means any gains in energy efficiency over the past fifteen years will count towards the 2050 target. The city’s legislators also phased the implementation of the CMA, with the first being a 40 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2030. Beyond 2030, the 2050 targets will apply to all structures that fall within the scope of the regulations.

Local Law 97 of 2019 (or Bill 1253) is the primary piece of legislation concerning building owners. It defines the necessary limits and schedules for compliance. Additional laws in the CMA give building owners access to finance tools for their renovation projects, promotes the adoption of renewable energy sources, and sets up a department to closely monitor the city’s progress. A design professional will head up the department responsible for implementing the laws, indicating the city’s commitment to finding holistic solutions to improving energy efficiency.

The city is not going to stand around and wait for stakeholders to comply with the legislation either. The first deadline for limiting emissions will start in 2024. Any building that has not achieved the required reductions by then will face a fine of $268 per tonne of emissions over the set limit. Emission limits will depend on the occupancy type of buildings corresponding with the total floor area. As of 2024, the acceptable limits for each building will continue to decrease to achieve the 40 percent reduction targets for 2030.

Renovating New York City for future resilience

Building owners can make major gains in energy efficiency by improving their structures’ insulation. Modern insulation can provide better thermal efficiency from the building’s envelope and the internal walls, ceilings, and floors. By simply improving the insulation used in their buildings, owners can gain large energy savings, thereby also reducing their emissions. If owners do not want to alter the structure’s façade, they have access to technologies suitable for insulating the interior walls.

The majority of energy consumed in commercial New York City buildings goes toward heating and cooling the structure. This makes improved insulation systems the best option for achieving the city’s new efficiency limits within the given timeframes. As the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program also gives owners access to finance, initiating a renovation project will not require a large, upfront capital investment.

Another benefit of the PACE program is that it couples the loan amount to the building and not the owners. Repayment of the renovation project costs will typically take between ten and twenty years. If the owner sells the building during this time, the loan for financing the renovation project transfers to the new owner. This makes improving the insulation with deep renovation projects a viable business case for achieving compliance with CMA by reducing emissions, while also making the building more comfortable for the inhabitants.

Retrofitting buildings for improved efficiency reduces pollution, conserves natural resources, decreases energy consumption, and saves money. Towards this end, ROCKWOOL Group engages with New York City’s real estate and design communities with the common goal of reducing the effects of climate change.

By improving the built environment, BE-Ex (of which ROCKWOOL Group is a founding member) seeks to accelerate the transition to healthy, comfortable, productive, and energy-efficient buildings. BE-Ex serves as a resource and trusted expert in the building sectors of cities around the world.

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