“He’s not just a problem because of his policies in Washington, but because his buildings are among the biggest polluters in New York City,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The circus-like scene at Trump Tower on May 13 was surreal, as the leader of the largest US metropolis held a raucous political rally inside the belly of the beast.
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“We have a message for President [Donald] Trump and all the others,” De Blasio said. “We will take your money, we will find you, and we will hold you accountable.”
“Rejoin the Paris agreement, and make the US a leader on global warming,” added De Blasio, days before announcing his own 2020 presidential candidacy. “We will not let you mortgage our future for your real estate.”
“It doesn’t matter who you are, even the president of the United States. You’ll have to comply with the law of this city.”
Many developers in the American financial capital are up in arms over the $4bn cumulative price tag they could pay under pending new building-efficiency rules, the strictest of any city in the country.
The real-estate sector would bear the burden of retrofitting large buildings to comply with “Green New Deal” legislation passed by the New York City Council in April. Landlords who fail to abide by the new requirements – which De Blasio has yet to sign into law – could face big fines: $268 for each tonne above the limit.
The Trump Organization’s eight buildings in New York City could face a combined $2.1m in fines every year if they do not comply.
“But we don’t want your money,” said New York City Councilman Costa Constantinides, who sponsored the bill. “We want your carbon.”
As a long-time luxury property developer – and now a friend of the fossil-fuel industry – President Trump has openly mocked the Green New Deal idea from the Oval Office.
We don't want your money. We want your carbon.
Big structures will be forced to slash carbon emissions, with a target of 40-percent reduction by 2030 – so the plan is aligned with one of the main principles in Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s federal Green New Deal touted by climate activists.
Because of their heating, cooling and electricity usage, buildings generate 71 percent of New York City’s climate pollution.
Buildings over 2,300 square metres (25,000 square feet) will need to install new boiler systems, windows and insulation to conform to the regulations.
This applies to a wide range of privately-owned structures, from large residential buildings to business parks, freestanding supermarkets and big-box electronics stores. However, rent-stabilised housing is exempt for now, and it is unclear how much of the expense associated with the new rules could be passed on to the tenants of buildings that are not rent controlled.
Environmentalists are celebrating the changes, yet groups such as the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) are distressed by the new requirements.
“This approach will negatively impact our ability to attract and retain a broad range of industries – including technology, media, finance and life sciences,” John Banks, president of REBNY, told Al Jazeera.
“Unfortunately [the bill] does not take a comprehensive, city-wide approach needed to solve this complex issue,” said Banks, whose association would prefer legislation covering more building types.
“Houses of worship, buildings with at least one rent-regulated unit, income-restricted coops, public housing and city-owned buildings are all exempt from the carbon emission limits,” said a statement from the lobby group.
The city is already spending $3bn on retrofitting public buildings over a 10-year period.
Another criticism from REBNY is that the bill penalises building density – which can catalyse economic growth – instead of rewarding it. “The more people in a building, the more energy will be consumed and the more likely the building will exceed the hard cap,” the group said.
Retrofitting the cityscape
Opponents say landlords will be discouraged from offering leases to energy-hungry companies that generate lots of new jobs – even though some employers already pick up part of the tab because of higher utility bills.
And though many of the specifics have yet to be finalised, small landlords could be disproportionately impacted by compliance.
“There’s no question that the requirements – especially with the carbon caps – are very tough,” said John Mandyck, CEO of Urban Green Council. “It’ll be difficult for a lot of buildings to get there. But we’re optimistic about achieving carbon reductions in NYC.”
Mandyck’s organization – a nonprofit tied to the U.S. Green Building Council – published a report last September that provided the framework for April’s deal. But the new version enacted has a doubly aggressive timeline.
The Office of Building Energy and Emissions Performance will be created in the future to oversee the new standards, and a separate office is to provide financing for retrofit projects.
“This is a blueprint for efficiency,” Mandyck told Al Jazeera. “With one million buildings in the city, the 50,000 [buildings that must comply] represent half of the square footage and half of the carbon emissions.”
“But it’s not Manhattan-centric,” he said, “because the number-one users of energy are in multifamily housing, in every borough.”
Mandyck said that New York – a global city with $3 trillion in insured coastal assets – has a lot at stake. “We should do it smartly, for policies to be exportable,” he added. “But if no other cities reduce their carbon emissions, then New York harbour will still flood.”
With an economy large enough to be among the top 20 countries by gross domestic product, New York is blazing the trail for other big urban areas. The only other comparable climate policy is in Tokyo, where a carbon-trading scheme aims for similar results.
New York City will actually be studying the Japanese model. “Carbon trading allows buildings to trade among their building stock, to blend their average, or trade with other owners,” Mandyck said. “It’s also a way to bring sustainability and carbon reduction to low-income neighborhoods.”
‘A lot of breaks’
Melissa Checker, a professor at the City University of New York’s Queens College, said the city legislation is a “step in the right direction. It’s been a long time coming, acknowledges what needs to be done for climate change, and puts it into the building codes.”
Checker said she had “more concern about small homeowners, and how it might affect them, than the big real-estate developers who already get a lot of breaks”.
“The real-estate lobby is not happy, but [there is] not as much pushback as I would expect,” said Checker. “That’s a good thing.”
“I don’t think they’ll suffer that much,” she said. “[But] I’m not quite sure why they’re vocally opposed to it, because they’ve been advertising about following [energy-efficiency] measures for 10 years.”
“This is a piece of the federal Green New Deal, and if it works out in NYC – a complicated and populous city – then there’s a good chance it can be scaled up. But it’s just one slice of the bigger picture that [Rep. Ocasio-Cortez] laid out.”
Annel Hernandez, associate director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, said the grassroots climate-justice movement – rather than any single politician in Washington – is responsible for the success of local building-efficiency legislation.
“The federal [government] has not had much impact on this bill and how we’ve been framing this issue,” Hernandez told Al Jazeera. “It’s something we’ve been working on for years.”
But some middle-income New Yorkers – from coop owners and renters to office workers and property managers – are worried about the cost of going green.
One cooperative residential building in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens has long been struggling to retrofit its aging edifice.
“Our building is pretty conscious about energy saving,” said Amy, vice president of the Grandview Towers board, who declined to give her last name because of political sensitivities. “There’s only so much to do with an old building, unless you build a new building.”
“We changed the public lighting to LED, and then saw a little bit of the change in the electric bill – but not that much. We tried to go with solar, brought in engineers, and [that would] only offset consumption by 11 percent,” she said. “You can spend millions and [maybe] get it back 20 years later.”
“This has been coming up at every board meeting: number one is ‘save money’ and number two is ‘save the planet’. Sometimes they don’t go well when you look at the numbers. Nobody wants to pay more maintenance [or] pay more assessment,” she added, referring to monthly and annual fees.
Despite her ambivalence, the Queens coop shareholder said she was grateful for the decarbonisation rhetoric and Green New Deal branding coming from Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, whose field office is just blocks up Broadway from the Grandview Towers.
Meanwhile, the local battle to reduce emissions is inextricably linked with national efforts, activists say, especially when a real-estate titan from Queens is deemed the country’s highest-profile climate denier.
“The reality-TV actor who owns this [Trump Tower] building is now in the White House,” said Councilman Constantinides. “The time for action is now, and the time for acting is over.”
This article is the first in a four-part series looking at the economic and political context of Green New Deal policies around Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district. With local details and global significance, we examine the people and places most affected by climate proposals. Click on the stories below: