POLITICO: New York City’s next mayor will face a growing emergency in the fight against climate change.
The effects of global warming are already widespread and severe, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Flooded subway stations, heat emergencies and retreating coastlines are just a preview of the types of change city residents will continue to see — by most accounts on a more accelerated time frame than ever before. Local leaders must act fast to cut emissions and avoid the worst-case scenarios of climate change, experts warn.
The climate agenda released by Democratic nominee Eric Adams only spans six pages — an improvement over Republican rival Curtis Sliwa, who has released no plan. But the lack of detail is troubling the city’s environmental leaders, specifically in low-income communities of color where the effects are often felt the worst, and where Adams enjoys his strongest base of support.
“The lack of policy urgency surrounding climate change is increasingly staggering,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “It’s inevitable that New York City must figure out how to transition off of natural gas. The longer we delay even talking about it, it’s going to take that much more time.”
Adams, who is heavily favored to become mayor, has made general commitments to expand community solar, reduce the city’s reliance on dirty “peaker” plants by investing in battery storage and speed up the conversion to electric buses. He has opposed a pipeline project in Brooklyn and given qualified support to a new law that would cut building emissions.
But he doesn’t offer much by way of timelines or metrics for measuring success. And his positions on more ambitious climate policies that local officials have pursued — such as banning gas in new and renovated buildings — remain unknown.
Where we’re at
While transportation remains the largest contributor to greenhouse gas output in the Northeast, the city itself must focus its efforts on cleaning up its famed skyline. Buildings account for roughly 70 percent of emissions in New York City.
Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg made climate a particular focus of his administration when he created PlaNYC, an annual sustainability report with key objectives to tackle climate change. It was through the report that Bloomberg phased out the use of dirty heating oils — a major milestone in the city’s overall effort to cut its emissions — among the pursuit of other sustainability measures.
While Mayor Bill de Blasio has continued to issue the annual sustainability report, he has struggled to make meaningful progress on his own goal of reducing emissions 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. In fact, emissions have spiked by 3 percent since 2017, as POLITICO first reported. The closure of Indian Point, the nuclear plant that provided 80 percent of the city’s carbon-free electricity, has made cutting emissions that much harder.
The shape of de Blasio’s climate legacy will ultimately be determined by the implementation of Local Law 97, which mandates large buildings cut their emissions or face fines. De Blasio signed the bill into law in 2019 after years of delay and several rewrites at the behest of wary interest groups.
The difficult task of seeing it through now falls to his successor. Building owners must comply with the mandate beginning in 2024, and an advisory panel has yet to determine how to measure emissions, among other issues. A recent report by the Citizens Budget Commission, a prominent fiscal watchdog group, found nearly a quarter of buildings have yet to make the mandated cuts required by 2024.
Bautista said it will be vital to see where Adams will stand when it comes to forcing corporations and landlords to respond to climate change.
“What’s interesting about Adams is he seems to understand and even embrace environmental action from a personal responsibility perspective,” Bautista said, referencing how the mayoral candidate is an active bike rider and vegan. “But does he get that personal responsibility only gets us so far?”
Adams’ climate plan includes items like educating property owners on the benefits of community solar, training New Yorkers for clean energy jobs and financially supporting volunteer cleanup efforts. But foundational change — such as forcing big landlords to make buildings more energy efficient — will require a much heavier lift, especially for a mayor who has endeared himself to real estate interests.
“What is an Adams administration going to do about corporate responsibility? What is he going to do to make systems change?” Bautista said. “That’s where things get challenging.”
While de Blasio spurned the city’s corporate elite, Adams has actively courted the business community. Evan Thies, a top campaign adviser to Adams, has previously done consulting work for the Real Estate Board of New York, which has pushed for changes to the city’s building emissions law. Thies also did consulting work for Williams Co., the company that sought to build a new gas pipeline into the city.
Adams’ approach to Local Law 97 will be the first real test of how he will balance his embrace of the private sector with climate policies designed to put the onus of emissions reductions on property owners. On the campaign trail, Adams voiced broad support for the building emissions law, stating at a March 21 mayoral forum that “it’s a great law and we need to make sure that it’s not changed and must be put in place.”
A spokesperson recently said Adams, currently the Brooklyn borough president, does have some issues with the new law.
“[He’s] concerned that we will not reach our environmental goals unless the City works to reduce the costs of retrofits and upgrades that will be prohibitively expensive for some owners, as well as unfair fines that punish efficient buildings,” said Jonah Allon, a spokesperson for the borough president’s office.
“That is why he has supported City subsidies to assist property owners in need with the cost of retrofitting and called for significant investment in retrofitting the City’s own buildings as part of a broader strategy to ensure [the city] is a national leader in reducing carbon emissions and in creating a green economy,” Allon added.
Adams previously told NY1 he supports a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure. That’s in line with de Blasio, who signed an executive order stating the city will oppose new fossil fuel infrastructure. Only the state and federal government have approval authority over proposed pipelines and power plants, but climate advocates see a benefit in the mayor of America’s biggest city using the bully pulpit to influence policy on fossil fuel infrastructure.
Adams also has yet to take a public position on the proposed gas ban bill, Allon said. When asked if he supported a general gas ban during the lightning round of questioning at a June mayoral forum, Adams was one of several candidates who didn’t raise his hand.
De Blasio has voiced support for banning gas in new and renovated buildings by 2030, though he hasn’t taken steps to advance the policy. City Council members have introduced a bill that would enact the ban on a more rapid timeline, which already has 21 sponsors. It’s unclear if it will pass in the lame duck session — Speaker Corey Johnson hasn’t taken a position on the bill, a spokesperson told POLITICO.
“I think there’s a very big question hanging over Eric Adams’ incoming administration on whether he will side with the interest of the city’s voters or the polluters’ interests,” said Pete Sikora, a climate campaigns director with New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit organization. “It’s time to move forward like never before and it’s his opportunity to do so.”
Preparing for the worst
While Adams will be tasked with seeing through many of de Blasio’s unfinished environmental projects, he will also have an opportunity to chart a new course — particularly when it comes to resiliency efforts. New York City is expected to see regular, more damaging floods and more severe storms in the coming years.
After continual delays, the de Blasio administration has finally broken ground on the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan to bolster the Lower East Side from storm surges and sea level rise — an effort that began in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. But de Blasio has faced criticism for not giving as much attention to bolstering the shorelines of neighborhoods in the outer boroughs — areas that Adams effectively mobilized for his primary win.
“He is inheriting the glamorous challenge of what’s going to happen to the rest of the city,” said Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild by Design, the resiliency group that helped design the East Side Coastal Resiliency project. She referenced how the city failed to execute on resiliency efforts in the Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point, where the city’s largest food market is located.
In his campaign’s environmental agenda, Adams said, “we need to move boldly forward on resiliency projects across our city, with a particular focus on communities in the outer boroughs that are vulnerable to flooding.”
The waste debate
Adams will also be tasked with overseeing the city’s zero waste agenda to cut the amount of waste sent to landfills by 90 percent by 2030. As POLITICO reported in its Wasted Potential series, the city has actually shipped more waste to landfills in recent years and has largely failed to execute on major recycling initiatives designed to cut down on diverting trash.
Adams referenced the POLITICO series in his environmental agenda, stating that it “shone a light on the terrible failures to achieve recycling in our NYCHA complexes, with minimal separation of food scraps, cans, bottles, and other recyclable materials.”
“We will champion recycling at NYCHA not as a back-burner issue, but as a well-funded campaign of civic education and greater investment in modern waste infrastructure,” Adams wrote in his plan. “This will help achieve our goal to double both residential and business recycling rates in the next five years.”
Adams has also pledged to create a citywide organics program, and said the city’s choice to cut the curbside collection effort during the pandemic was a “mistake.”
Organic waste accounts for roughly one-third of the waste the city sends to landfills, where it emits methane — a potent greenhouse gas. Environmental advocates have called for the city to allocate more funding toward turning that waste into fresh soil through composting or turn it into biogas with anaerobic digesters.
Adams said he would offset the costs of the program by guaranteeing private processors long-term contracts to pick up the waste.
Eric Goldstein, the city environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said a focus on organic waste is essential.
“The single most important solid waste issue for the next mayor to deal with is universal curbside food waste collection,” he said. “And getting the single largest portion of the municipal waste stream out of landfills and incinerators will take a bite out of the global warming problem and be a benefit to environmental justice communities where most of these landfills and incinerators are located.”