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How to reduce emissions from buildings, buses and commercial waste

Climate change is one of the most urgent threats facing New Yorkers.

Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy brought massive storm surges and flooding and exposed deep inequities in our city’s infrastructure, housing and economy. Low-income waterfront communities continue to be the most vulnerable to storms. They should be at the forefront of our city’s climate policymaking, not relegated to the margins.

The next City Council speaker, elected in January, will play a make-or-break role in defining New York City’s response to climate change in the coming years. Yet so far in the speaker’s race the issue of climate change has not received the attention it deserves.

The council has enormous power over land use, zoning, buildings and other areas of policy that affect our city’s carbon footprint and how we respond to climate change.

Across the five boroughs, our greenhouse-gas emissions come from three main sources: buildings, transportation and waste treatment.

Here are a few key ways the next speaker can be a national leader in the fight against climate change.

1. Clean up dirty buildings

To his credit, Mayor Bill de Blasio has a clear plan to align New York City with the Paris climate accord, which aims to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.With nearly 70% of our city’s greenhouse-gas emissions coming from buildings, we will only meet our climate targets if buildings dramatically lower their energy consumption.

The council can mandate energy-efficiency standards in the city’s largest buildings, requiring them to reduce their use of on-site fossil fuels in boilers for heat and hot water, and their use of electricity. The goal should be to reduce energy consumption across the entirety of every building.

The Climate Works for All Coalition, formed in 2014 by community groups, environmental justice organizations, labor unions and other advocates, has been advocating for this kind of plan to create thousands of career-oriented jobs in energy efficiency across a range of occupations and professions, while protecting affordable housing.

2. Electrify buses

It’s often noted that major changes to the funding and operation of our transit system require state action. Indeed, a millionaires tax to raise revenue for mass transit needs approval from Albany, and congestion pricing might as well. The next speaker will play a critical role in strengthening city and state collaboration to advance bold policies like these and move us towards a clean energy economy.

Yet there is still a lot that can be done here in the city—especially with the bus system.

The next speaker can reduce public transportation’s contribution to climate change by championing legislation to electrify the city’s bus system. It could follow on the heels of a recent effort in Los Angeles to create a zero-emissions bus fleet.

An electrified bus fleet would be a major step toward making the city’s transportation system more sustainable. The mayor’s climate plan commits to an 80% sustainable mode share by 2050, meaning that four out of every five trips a New Yorker takes will be by foot, bicycle, or public transit.

3. Introduce zoning for commercial waste

Half of the city’s waste comes from commercial entities such as stores, restaurants and office buildings. Collection of this garbage is very inefficient. About 80 carting companies travel across the city each night, with up to a dozen haulers operating on some blocks. And the recycling rate for commercial waste is at best 30%.

The mayor has committed to a new zone collection system that will cut commercial waste truck traffic by up to 68% and dramatically increase recycling rates. It will incentivize investments in new infrastructure that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills. The City Council will oversee legislation for this new system and should ensure that it includes strong standards for protecting the environment and commercial-waste workers.

With climate change ravaging the planet, our coastal city hangs precariously in the balance.

That’s why the next council speaker must pursue a robust agenda to protect our city and prepare our communities for the extreme climate events of the future.

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