President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord has poured accelerant on a smoldering fight in New York City over energy mandates in buildings.
City Council members and environmental advocates are using the president's withdrawal to push Mayor Bill de Blasio for more aggressive mandates in cutting building emissions, which account for as much as 75 percent of the city's greenhouse gas emissions. But the city's powerful real estate lobby and it's biggest utility are against the mandates, setting up a showdown with City Hall.
"With Trump's catastrophic withdrawal from the Paris Accord, the time for waiting is over. NYC must require large buildings to reduce their energy and fossil fuel consumption," said City Councilman Brad Lander. "Without stronger energy efficiency standards for buildings ... we will fail to meet our urgent goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. We must not allow the madman in the White House to throw away our planet's future."
De Blasio established a technical working group in 2015 comprised of real estate interests, designers and advocates to establish methods of cutting building emissions. At first, the measures were to be only encouraged, but de Blasio threatened mandates if the real estate world did not move quickly enough.
Last year, he surprised the city's real estate sector by announcing he would mandate a series of retrofits. The city's energy code has since been updated with more stringent requirements for new construction. The administration also increased the number of buildings that had to participate in benchmarking, or publicly disclosing their energy use
But Council members are growing restless for the mayor to push harder.
"I urge the administration to require energy efficiency standards for all of the city's buildings, whether residential or commercial," Councilman Jumaane Williams said in a statement. "It's one of the immediate ways New York City can really lead on this issue and truly resist."
While there was public accord between real estate players on the goals set out by City Hall initially, interests have diverged in the past year.
"We share the goal of dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions," said John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of New York in a statement. "However, to call for mandatory retrofits without a game plan that reflects economic reality or credible methods of implementation is simply empty rhetoric. We look forward to continuing our work with the Mayor's Office and the Council to ensure an energy efficient environment for all New Yorkers."
The Rent Stabilization Association, the largest landlord group in the city, said if the city wants private building owners to pay for retrofits, it has to allow for more significant increases in rent for stabilized housing. The mayor's Rent Guidelines Board had frozen the increases on rent-stabilized housing for two years, and in April it proposed an increase well short of what landlords had hoped for.
"There's always a balance between good intentions and affordable housing. You can't always have both and most buildings are at their limit," said Frank Ricci, RSA's head of government affairs. "If the Mayor would give reasonable rent increases we'd have something to discuss. Without those increases we lose housing. "
Con Edison president Craig Ivey, in a speech last week, also threw cold water on the concept of mandates.
"Regulating energy consumption through mandates and penalties is akin to a tax on essentials like milk and bread," Ivey said, adding that such penalties increase the cost of living in the already expensive city. Asked to clarify after the speech, he said, "It was mandates on building owners I was referring to."
The question of cost is the biggest stumbling block in the debate over energy mandates. Deep retrofits that would improve the efficiency of heating, cooling and electricity consumption are costly, and the term of payback in lower utility bills is not always clear.
"What are reasonable costs to bear for industry? You can't just say, 'here's a number, hit it," said Russel Unger, head of the Urban Green Council, an influential group in building efficiency. "There's going to be a point past that where this is not in anyone's business interest, and the question is, who is going to bear the cost of that? This is the question that needs to be grappled with."
The mayor's office was non-committal in response to the push from Council members and advocates.
"With Trump's abdication of US leadership in the global fight against climate change, the Mayor has stepped up to help meet this challenge," said City Hall spokesman Seth Stein. "The City has already committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050, and the Mayor signed an executive order adopting the goals of the Paris agreement."
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