State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

NYC’s Public-Private Partnerships to Fight Climate Change

By Christopher Cadham

Photo of New York City skyline courtesy of Flickr user Johannes Valkama via Creative Commons.

Following the climate talks in Paris this past December, there has been increased focus on steps being taken by individual cities to fight climate change. In a Dec. 4 post on this blog, we outlined the steps a number of cities are taking. Many of these cities are out performing their nation; New York is a prime example.

At the Paris climate talks (known as “COP21,” the Conference of Parties to the UN’s climate change efforts), New York was given the Building Energy Efficiency award by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change, for its One City: Built to Last program. This aggressive program seeks to cut New York’s carbon emissions from buildings by 30 percent of 2005 levels by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050.

Why are buildings so important? In a city as large and densely populated as New York, buildings account for almost three quarters of New York’s contribution to climate change. Vast amounts of energy go toward heating, cooling and lighting these buildings, many of which lack high standards of efficiency. In order to effectively reduce the city’s carbon footprint, it is vital to not only provide green sources of power and heat for all of these buildings, but also to retrofit buildings to ensure that energy flows through them efficiently.NYC Emissions

One City: Built to Last outlines the city’s plan to retrofit all city-owned buildings with a significant energy usage within the next 10 years. This would mean working on some 3,000 out of the 4,000-plus buildings the city owns. While the report outlines beneficial strides the city is making to improve the energy efficiency of its buildings, New York City has almost one million buildings, the vast majority of which are not owned by the city. It is important to note that not all of these buildings have extensive energy usage. But, it illustrates that solely retrofitting city-owned buildings would come nowhere near the goal of 80 percent reductions by 2050. In order to meet these goals, the city is relying on its Carbon Challenge, an effort to get private and institutional organizations on board to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in 10 years.

The largest contributors to the city’s carbon emissions are residential and commercial buildings. While the city continues to raise the construction code standards, this has limited effect on buildings already standing, 85 percent of which are expected to still be standing by 2030. Therefore, not only is the plan to retrofit buildings crucial to any attempt to cut emissions in this city, but so is fostering public and private partnerships in order to tackle climate change.

Prior to COP21, the Urban Climate Change Research Network, a consortium of over 600 researchers, released their Summary For City Leaders report on Climate Change and Cities. This report outlines the importance of encouraging private sector partnerships into engagement rather than just mere investment. These partnerships that can help to advance innovation, capacity building and institutional leadership “are necessary for effective action,” the report says. In the context of cities, these partnership become even more valuable. This is because climate actions on the city level tend to be dominated by smaller scale, incremental changes that are brought on by community actions, local institutions and private actors.

The mayor’s office projects that One City: Built to Last, which includes the Carbon Challenge, will reduce greenhouse gas emission by 3.4 million metric tons a year by 2025—the equivalent to taking 715,000 vehicles off the road. It will also generate cost-savings across the public and private sectors of more than $1.4 billion a year by 2025, leading to $8.5 billion in cumulative energy cost-savings over 10 years. The city’s report anticipates the creation of 3,500 new jobs in construction and energy services, in addition to the training of more than 7,000 building staff to upgrade their skills.

Thus far 17 universities, 11 hospital organizations, 11 global companies, an alliance of 40 Broadway theaters and 18 residential management firms have taken up the challenge. Five universities, one hospital, and two commercial offices have already achieved the 30 percent goal.

The Carbon Challenge, by working to build these partnerships, is helping to move New York City toward its goal of 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050. As the largest city to commit to such a goal, New York City acts as a leader in fighting climate change. If effective, this public-private partnership model might demonstrate to other cities what can be done to reach their targets. With the first deadlines of the challenge approaching it will be fascinating to see the steps that private partners are taking to cut their emissions.

Christopher Cadham is an MPH student at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and an intern at the Columbia Climate Center.

For more on energy use in New York City, read up here:

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