Progressive world cities such as New York City, Toronto, Vancouver and Melbourne are leading the charge to address climate change in urban settings through impactful, mandatory action being taken by their municipal governments.
That was the key policy imperative identified by a panel assembled by Toronto-based SvN Architects + Planners as part of a new LinkedIn Live Series dubbed SvN Speaks.
The focus of the June 1 panel session was on New York and its aggressive Local Law Number 97, passed by city council in March 2019 as part of the Climate Mobilization Act. The law requires most large existing buildings – over 25,000 square feet – to reduce their emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050. Most buildings of that size will be required to meet new energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions limits by 2024.
The law is groundbreaking because it targets existing buildings and requires owners to take action, investing in renovation and retrofitting.
Panellist David Miller, former mayor of Toronto and currently the managing director of the C40 Centre for Urban Climate Policy and Economy, pointed to civic leadership in those leading cities along with participation in active global alliances as two keys to progress.
“What’s at the heart of New York? Purposeful, government-led action,” said Miller.
“This knowledge can spread rapidly at scale and pace globally, given the urgency of the climate crisis. We need to use these best practices to work somewhere and make sure they can work everywhere.”
Miller’s fellow panellist was Lolita Jackson, former special adviser for climate policy with the City of New York, and the live-streamed event was hosted by Aaron Budd, director of regenerative practice at SvN.
Besides Local Law 97, last year New York took another bold step towards electrification of its buildings with another law that mandates phasing out fossil fuels in new buildings as early as 2023, accelerating the construction of all-electric buildings.
“Creating progressive legislation is easy and competitive in comparison to enacting it,” Budd said. “It often involves multi-year negotiations between municipalities, industry, stakeholders, utility companies and provincial or state governments.”
Jackson noted that New York City has a history of progressive municipal policies such as the implementation of urban heat islands and inclusionary zoning dating back 15 years, and reliance on science and data.
“We have the data saying this is where things are happening, where it’s coming from, and obviously we had the catalytic incident of Hurricane Sandy to really expedite things we’re doing,” she said. “I can’t stress enough that because we already had the trust of people, we were doing this based on science, not as a feeling.”
“We felt as a city that it was important to deal with the largest buildings and the largest emitters, the first 40,000 buildings only in New York City,” she noted, out of one million buildings.
Local Law 97 was carefully crafted to ensure specific needs and usages were respected. Buildings have different caps for compliance based on the carbon intensity of usage. For example, health care buildings are required to maintain safety, “so we ultimately gave them as loose a requirement as possible without giving them a pass,” Jackson said. And regulations for residential retrofits were designed to avoid triggering massive rent increases.
Miller said in general there is a strong economic case for the program given that many large buildings will still be standing in 50 years.
“There’s absolutely no question whatsoever, energy retrofits will pay back over time,” he said.
“The challenge is that the owners of the buildings want their capital to be paid back in two or three years sometimes. So they’re not prepared to accept a longer payback which depending on interest rates and the price of natural gas could be 10 to 20 years.”
Property Assessed Clean Energy loans are available for property owners to finance retrofits.
Asked about other significant municipal initiatives worldwide, Miller identified Toronto’s Green Standards and its participation in the Better Buildings program, along with Sydney and Melbourne in Australia. And Vancouver is an interesting example of leadership, he said, with one of the most advanced building codes in the world.
“It is going to lead to a complete revolution in the construction industry,” Miller commented.
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.