Skyscrapers for the Planet: Cutting Building Emissions to Avert Climate Catastrophe

New York may be known for its skyscrapers, but its skyscrapers might not be known for what they increasingly are: deadly. These glittering towers might look innocent enough, but they account for a whopping three quarters of its local carbon emissions, with just a few of the biggest—over 25,000 square feet—accounting for nearly a third. These incredibly inefficient behemoths imperil our future just by existing, spewing dangerous gases that warm the climate and usher in a domino effect of consequences. To put the problem in perspective…

A recent study shows that the average multi-family complex is only marginally more well-insulated than homes built right after the Roman Empire crumbled.

(If that doesn’t make you say yeesh, what will?) And with the IPCC’s recent disturbing report, which predicts that climate catastrophe could hit as early as 2040—New York needs to be doing everything it possibly can to cinch that carbon belt.

In that spirit, Queens-area Councilman Constantinides recently introduced a bill that would require New York’s largest buildings (over 50,000 square feet) to slash their greenhouse emissions by 40% in the next twelve years, as well as bumping up requirements for buildings 25,000 feet or greater. (In a fitting tribute to the President’s backpedaling on climate issues, Trump Tower is one of the dirtiest.) In the spirit of fairness, the law would target the worst-performing buildings before moving onto the others. And, in the spirit of climate justice, the bill would close loopholes that allow landlords to pass on capital improvements to their tenants, protecting low-income residents and folks who live in rent-controlled buildings from paying polluters’ bills. (This, however, poses a thorny problem, since these units account for a huge chunk of total emissions, creating a Sophie’s Choice situation for poor New Yorkers, who have to choose between clean and climate or increased rental fees.) The whole process would be overseen by a new Office of Building Energy Performance, which would enforce the retrofits necessary to meet reduction goals, as well as ramping up the requirements over time.

But if there’s one thing better known than New York’s skyscrapers, it’s the fact that developers control this city. So it should be no surprise that real estate and landlord interests have already been raising a ruckus at public hearings, determined to sidestep the responsibility for their polluting ways. Other organizations, from unions to the Catholic Church, have argued that the deadlines are unrealistic, requiring more construction than the city’s workforce can provide and leading to potentially shoddy retrofits that will meet the requirements but fail to fulfill the actual purpose of the law. But Constantinides is just as serious, having already spearheaded efforts to reduce New York’s emissions 80% from 2005 levels by 2050, and supporting an array of renewable energy options for a cleaner, greener future. He and his supporters argue that there isn’t time to wait for climate reductions, and that a sweeping response—from cutting building emissions to transitioning to renewables—is the only option.

Ash Sanders