Sticking to the Paris Agreement: How NYC is upholding their commitment

New York City (Katherine Baker)

The New York City skyline. (Katherine Baker/Columbia University)

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On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced his plan for the United States to exit the Paris Climate Agreement, an international pact to strengthen efforts to combat climate change by keeping global temperature rise in the present century under 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. 

Soon after, many concerned city and state leaders announced their commitment to combating climate change by sticking to the ideals of the Paris Agreement at local or regional levels. Among the cities to make a pledge was the nation’s largest: New York City.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was quick to declare the city’s continued allegiance to green initiatives despite the federal decision, a move which de Blasio tweeted was “unconscionable.”

Trump’s decision to promote anti-climate policies has pushed de Blasio to work aggressively to protect New York City and the future of the planet.

As an island city in a geographical vulnerable location, New York City has already seen climate change in action with rising temperatures and sea level. To insure the longevity of the city, swift and serious action is essential.

Perhaps that’s why, on June 2, 2017 (just one day following President Trump’s announcement), Mayor de Blasio signed Executive Order 26 committing New York City to the principles of the Paris Agreement. Specifically, New York has committed to keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But how does New York, the largest city in the United States, plan to keep it’s eco-impact in check? Several initiatives are already underway, with many more on the horizon for continued roll-out. New York has made strides in reduce its climate impact; still, some strategies face large hurdles as the city strives towards sustainability.

The 1.5C Climate Plan

The city, at least so far, seems to be holding true to its promise. In addition to executive order 26, on Oct. 3, 2017, the city released its 1.5 C Climate Plan, which contains both immediate and ongoing action plans to reduce New York City’s climate impact. The press release is extensive and detailed, calling for a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort between various organizations, leaders, and citizens to turn climate goals into a reality.

The 1.5 C: Aligning New York City with the Paris Climate Agreement document contains both short and long term goals. The 16 Near Term goals are aimed to drastically reduce emissions, and if achieved will result in an estimated 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide reductions (enough to power 1,079,797 homes) by 2030.

In the long-term, NYC has set a 80×50 and carbon neutrality by 2050, meaning New York City has ambitiously committed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80% below the 2005 and achieve zero net emissions citywide over the next 33 years. These efforts are built on an already solid sustainability foundation. Long before the Paris agreement, New York City has been striving towards sustainable growth. Since 2005, GHG emissions have decreased 14.8% despite population and economic growth, and the average per capita GHG emission of New York City resident was 6.1 metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent, significantly lower than the 19 carbon dioxide national per-capita average.

But striving for carbon neutrality will require far broader efforts. By tackling various areas of the energy, waste, and transportation sectors, New York hopes to translate their ambitious goal into reality.

New York City pollution
In New York City, two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions come from the use of natural gas, electricity, steam, biofuel, and heating oil in New York City buildings. (Shandra Furtado/Planet Forward)

Power in the city that never sleeps

Previous to 2013, the largest contributor of citywide GHG emissions came from electricity usage. The drastic drop in GHG emissions can largely be attributed to the switch of power plants from coal to natural gas, and the construction of efficient gas power plants within and outside the city. The push towards gas has helped reduce emissions from this source significantly, but still, more work needs to be done. Most of the large drop occurred early on, and progress reducing emissions in this sector has since slowed.

In a city that never sleeps (or powers down, for that matter), reducing energy consumption is a challenge. City data has shown stationary building energy contributes the largest proportion of energy use and despite efforts mentioned above, 67% of citywide greenhouse gas emissions came from the use of natural gas, electricity, steam, biofuel, and heating oil in New York City buildings, in 2015, 31% from natural gas and 25% from electricity.

To target reducing emissions from buildings, New York City recently became the first city to pass mandates requiring all owners of existing buildings over 25,000 square feet to meet fossil fuel caps over the next 12-17 years.

The initiative, inspired by President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, is aimed to reduce fossil fuels used for heat and hot water in New York City buildings.

If successful, the mandate would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New York City by an astounding 7%. The program has also promised to create up to 17,000 green energy jobs, a decreased reliance on fossil fuels, less carbon pollution and lower annual energy costs for building owners in New York City.

With a diverse and aging building scape, this is no small task. Moreover, the mandate that heat and hot water must be included in all New York City places of residence, combined with old building infrastructure, at times encourages inefficient use of heat and electricity. The aggressive initiative could make a large difference, but only time will tell if it can be implemented successfully.

As the city sector itself owns and operates many buildings, the city is also committing to 100% renewable energy in all city operations as part of the 1.5 C Climate Plan. The commitment comes with a caveat, however. This initiative can only be rolled out once a sufficient supply can be bought online.

To further reduce energy consumption, 50 new solar projects on public buildings are also being rolled out this fall, with hopes of putting the city a quarter of the way to the goal of 100 megawatts of solar energy on public property by 2025. Existing power plants within the city are also being targeted for efficiency improvements and reduced emissions.

Initiatives have also been implemented to reduce street light GHG emissions, which have cut rates since 2006. Still, a great amount of power is used to illuminate the iconic, ever-glowing skyline of the city. The 24-hour, bright lights big-city vibe seems almost as embedded in New York City culture as jumbo bagels and dollar pizza, and to achieve carbon neutrality, energy use in street lighting and signs may prove a challenge.

In the long term, New York hops to roll out microgrid community energy networks. Microgrids, or small-scale electric grids that connect more than one building to a power source, can integrate distributed energy resources and deploy electricity and heat resources at a community scale, potentially reducing energy costs, improving air quality, and strengthening resilience in case of future power outages and natural disaster.

It seems New York is serious about reducing energy consumption. Regulations on buildings and investment in solar energy could prove effective, but with a city obsessed with illumination and filled with aging buildings, will not come without challenges.

Toss it: Waste in the Big Apple

New York makes a lot of waste – 20,000 solid tons and 1 billion gallons of water each day, to be exact. And it’s contributing to city-wide GHG emission: management of solid waste and water treatment were responsible for 1.84 metric tons of CO2 emissions (equivalent to burning over 2,000 pounds of coal) in 2015.

Acknowledging this, New York has set a goal to send zero waste to landfills by the year 2030. To achieve this goal, the city must fully implement all existing commitments diverting waste from landfills to producing enough renewable energy at wastewater treatment sites to meet on-site energy needs.

Organic waste, such as plant-based material and paper, comprise the largest majority of NYC waste, and are responsible for producing the most significant generator of GHG emissions within the waste category. When landfilled, methane gas is produced, which can have catastrophic impacts on climate change. NYC is striving to accelerate diversion of tons of organics from landfill by expanding their organics separation program to all New Yorkers with curbside pickup or convenient drop-off by 2018, which could reduce the GHG emissions the city produces from waste.

The waste sector is also taking aim at food waste, the largest source of waste-related GHG emissions in the city, striving to transform table scraps into compost or using it for energy production.

Single-stream recycling will also be rolled out city wide by 2020, meaning New Yorkers will no longer need to sort their recyclables. By making recycling easier for residents, they hope to drastically increase those who participate.

While these initiatives are promising, many targets for complete waste-reduction reply on the consumer and industry initiatives to improve packaging. The current zero waste goals depend on New Yorkers shifting how they purchase products (i.e. selecting used products over new and opting for products with as little waste as possible), and assumes packaging designs will continue to improve.

While possible, relying on individual behavior to achieve such a large goal is reason for concern. Individual behavior is difficult to change. One can hope the city also has plans to continue education on just how important every individual action in fighting climate change truly is.

Commuter life

While New York is a very pedestrian-friendly city, most residents and visitors alike use public and private transportation to get around. Between yellow taxi cabs, subways, buses, and cars, the transportation sector was responsible for contributing roughly 30% of total citywide GHG emissions in 2015. To reduce emissions in this sector, several initiatives are being rolled out.

The 1.5 C Climate Plan, for example, has targeted investment in sustainable transportation for the city. There’s also plans for continued implementation of select bus services, which aims to reduce transit time by allocating lanes exclusively for buses, giving buses traffic signal priority, and speeding idle time by collecting fares as passengers leave, rather than board, the bus.

While select bus service may reduce emissions, switching all buses to electric buses could be even more monumental. Presently, the 5,700 buses that comprise the NYC fleet are a combination of diesel, hybrid diesel, and compressed natural gas buses. Changing the entire fleet, which not in the current plans, could result in a drastic cuts in citywide carbon emission.

Mayor de Blasio set a goal of adding 2,000 electric vehicles to the city’s vehicle fleet by 2025, and with over 1,000 EV sedans already running by the end of July 2017, it appears this initiative is well-ahead of schedule.  Because of the rapid implementation of this initiative, the mayor has vowed to go further, by expanding infrastructure for electric vehicles in hopes of making them more accessible to all New Yorkers.

The mayor has even partnered with ConEdison, convincing the city’s major energy corporation to invest an additional $25 million in innovative electric vehicle strategies and infrastructure, which could help expanded the program. The city is also looking to implement public street chargers for electric vehicles, allowing electrification of private vehicles, as well as taxis and car shares and delivery trucks. Should this ambition become reality, drastic cuts from vehicle emissions are possible.

Implementation of low-emission zones, or areas where vehicles that do not meet pollution standards are charged to enter the controlled area, is also on the table, which would could further incentivize use of lower-emission vehicles.

New York also plans to build at least 50 miles of open bike lanes (10 of which will be protected) to encourage an alternative form of commuting, thereby reducing congestion.

Biking, while carbon-friendly mode of transportation, may pose risk to the cyclist. Researchers at Columbia University have found bikers in the city inhale more than the EPA limit of safe environmental particulate matter on an average day commuting. How the city plans to mitigate these health risks remains unclear, but adding trees and reducing overall city emissions may help.

Bike lanes
Although biking is a carbon-friendly mode of transportation, it poses health risks in the city due to pollution exposure. ‘Greening’ New York City involves fixing these types of problems through cross-disciplinary environmental planning. (Bea Arthur/Wikimedia Commons)

Why New York City’s response matters

As a coastal city, New York City susceptible to hurricanes, rising sea-levels, storm surges, and floods. Moreover, as the nation’s most densely populated urban center, New York City has potential to either dramatically contribute to climate change, or set an example for other urban areas on how to run a clean, green city.

Even though the country seems to be departing from the global effort to combat climate change under the current administration, one should not underestimate the impact that can be made at a local level. Though there is a lack of commitment under federal leadership, it is both inspiring and empowering to see mayors and state officials committing their communities to leave a smaller ecological impacts as a response to the urgent global threat of climate change.

As the nation’s most populous city, New York is setting an example for communities large and small around the globe. It seems the city and it’s officials are doing good on their words and taking bold steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve sustainability efforts, and increase disaster readiness. If climate-friendliness can make it there, perhaps it can make it anywhere.

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