What Real Action on Climate Change Looks Like

This article first appeared on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience. 100RC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.

When President Trump started the process of withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, he turned his back on his hometown. New Yorkers watched the waters submerge our city during Hurricane Sandy. For us, the fight against climate change is a fight for our lives.

But we didn’t wring our hands at the White House’s denial. We got to work. I ordered the entire municipal government to bring me a plan to meet the Paris Agreement’s ‘stretch’ goal of not allowing this earth to heat up by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, which will curb the most disastrous effects of climate change.

Last week, we announced the first step in meeting that goal. We are taking dead aim at the number-one source of New York City’s carbon emissions: our aging buildings. Large buildings in our city will be required to meet a strict fossil fuel use target by 2030.

The new rules will force our dirtiest 14,500 buildings to update boilers, water heaters, roofs, and windows to the most energy-efficient standards. These buildings alone are responsible for a quarter of all total carbon emissions.

Other cities have set standards for new buildings. That’s important, but it’s nowhere near as difficult—or as effective—as retrofitting existing buildings that are our biggest source of emissions.

We know the technology and the financing behind retrofits work, because 4,000 buildings are already working with us to make these changes voluntarily. But without an across the board mandate, we have no hope of meeting the target of reducing overall emissions 80 percent by 2050.

There will be carrots and sticks to help building owners get the job done.

These retrofits save money—a lot of money when it comes to the least efficient buildings. The retrofits will pay for themselves in 5 to 15 years on average, after which building owners will reap the windfall of lower operating costs from heating, cooling and powering their buildings. By giving owners access to technical expertise and low-interest financing, we can make this an even more attractive proposition.

But we are also going to make it clear to landlords that they will face consequences if they don’t comply. For example, the owner of a 1 million square foot tower would pay as much as $2 million in fines every year until he brings his property up to standard. People will quickly understand that we mean business.

The public good here is inarguable. Retrofitting our largest buildings would be the equivalent of taking 900,000 cars off the road each year and there will be other benefits besides. We estimate there will be 17,000 good-paying green jobs created—jobs that cannot be outsourced.

They can deny science in Washington. Cities like New York won’t ignore science and will set the pace. We will roll up our sleeves and achieve the change we need.

This will be hard work. It will be massively controversial, and we are going to take fire from vested interests as we fight to pass these mandates into law. But we don’t have until 2040 or 2050 to take on the biggest sources of emissions. We have to act today.

In many ways New York City is a singular place, but it is also typical of a world where most people now live in cities. If we can turn the corner on emissions in New York, we can turn the corner on emissions anywhere, and we better turn that corner quickly.

The window for saving this world is closing.