Mayor de Blasio tours the Electrical Industry Training Center in Queens (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
Soon after reports surfaced that President Donald Trump would withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, a landmark accord to limit global temperature increases signed by nearly every country, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would sign an executive order committing New York City to the agreement. On June 2, after Trump confirmed the rumors in a White House Rose Garden speech, the Mayor signed such an order.
Though the city has undertaken ambitious measures to curb emissions under the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, the city may now have to go further than it already has in addressing climate change through policy.
The Paris agreement, signed by 195 nations (including the United States) and ratified by 147, stipulates three aims for all countries of the world to collectively strive for:
1. “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”
2. “Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production.”
3. “Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.”
The president’s action makes the U.S. one of only three countries not party to the agreement; the other two are Nicaragua, which claims that the agreement doesn’t go far enough, only committing the largest polluters to voluntary targets, and Syria, which is in the grips of a massive, six-year civil war.
A Yale University survey published last year showed that almost 70% of Americans believe that the country should remain in the agreement, much higher than the number of people who consider themselves "concerned believers" in climate change, which is about 50%. According to the Yale survey, New York State actually registers the highest percentage of residents out of any state in terms of believing that the country should stay in the Paris Agreement; with over 75%.
The agreement is effectively non-binding due to a lack of enforcement measures, a fact that has been criticized by environmental activists. The agreement also doesn’t stipulate any specific policies through which these aims are to be achieved, leaving the policy solutions to the signatories. Many of the enforcement measures for the U.S. to abide by the deal were stripped when Trump announced an executive order to review former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan; it is widely expected that the EPA will dismantle it.
The Paris aims are to be met through “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs, which are dictated individually by signatories in such a way that the targets are collectively met. More developed countries would pledge financial aid to less developed countries so they can meet their targets, such as through the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which Trump harshly criticized in his White House Rose Garden speech announcing U.S. withdrawal.
Trump’s pulling out of the agreement, and de Blasio’s subsequent commitment that the city will stick with it anyway, could require the city to determine its own NDCs.
The mayor chastised the president in a May 31 press conference in Red Hook, Brooklyn for being callous regarding an issue that will disproportionately affect his own hometown.
“We have to understand that if climate change is not addressed, one of the greatest coastal cities on the Earth will be increasingly threatened,” the mayor said. “And it's very painful to reflect the fact that Donald Trump is from New York City. He should know better. He should know that what he is thinking of doing would hurt his hometown more than almost any place else, because we're an entirely coastal city.”
The next day, Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from Paris and de Blasio issued his executive order. What the mayor’s order did not immediately make clear was whether the city would be specifically drawing up targets to send to the UN, as a country is supposed to do. Asked for more detail, a City Hall spokesperson sent a statement capturing the city’s commitment and goals.
“The Mayor’s executive order adopted the goals of the Paris agreement,” the spokesperson said, “in particular reaffirming the City’s goal to reduce its greenhouse gas contributions to the level needed to limit warming to 2C, and to explore how to develop further plans that keep to the 1.5C goal. In the face of Trump’s abdication of American leadership to meet the global challenge of climate change, it is more important than ever that we take action at the local level.”
The spokesperson added that Section 3 of the mayor’s executive order “is about working with others to deliver on the US NDC,” though the order refers to the “2016 commitment to the Paris Agreement” rather than specifically saying “NDC” or “nationally determined contribution.” The spokesperson did not specify whether New York would be formally determining an NDC. Subnational entities are not required to submit NDCs to the UN, as national entities are.
Only sovereign states, not subnational entities, can donate to the Green Climate Fund, according to the spokesperson. So, the current structure of the fund and financing scheme would preclude New York City from actually being able to contribute financially.
The two-page executive order doesn’t contain many particulars, especially compared to the much larger, 32-page Paris Agreement framework. The EO states that New York City will attempt to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, but doesn’t include specific strategies for the city to meet the targets.
Since the Paris Agreement was signed by almost every country in the world, there is not much language regarding subnational entities like cities. The Agreement “welcomes the efforts of all non-Party stakeholders to address and respond to climate change, including those of civil society, the private sector, financial institutions, cities and other subnational authorities,” but the Agreement has been adopted almost universally and is organized under a United Nations framework, which a city or state cannot join, and therefore does not stipulate language about subnational entities formally joining if the national entity pulls out.
For the city to meet Paris stipulations, it will have to craft policy without the aid of federal regulations, and likely in conjunction with the state government, due to state control over the city’s massive public transportation network. Governor Andrew Cuomo also signed an executive order committing the state to meeting the standards of the Paris Agreement regardless of the federal government’s position. Cuomo then announced that New York would be part of the “United States Climate Alliance,” consisting initially of New York, California, and Washington (state), then joined by other states, to abide by the Agreement.
New York City already has a low carbon footprint compared to other major American cities, owing largely to its high density and plentitude of mass transportation options; New York is the only major city in the nation where a majority of households don’t own an automobile.
New York State has the lowest carbon footprint, per capita, of any state, according to data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency.
De Blasio, in 2014, announced a goal, known as 80 x 50, for the city to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. The plan involves cutting emissions -- from vehicles, energy consumption in buildings, and waste disposal -- by 43 million metric tons by 2050. The plan is part of de Blasio’s larger OneNYC initiative, which includes a variety of environmental, resiliency, and sustainability goals and strategies. De Blasio’s initiatives, on top of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s own substantial environmental efforts, have essentially charted the city on a path to meeting the Prais standards well before the city’s commitment to Paris through executive order.
Russell Unger, executive director of the Urban Green Council, a nonprofit that advocates for more environmentally sustainable buildings, says that the numbers add up to 80 x 50 meeting Paris standards, but that, especially in city policy, models and implementation are two entirely different beasts.
“The city recognizes there’s a lot of work to be done to take a plan that mostly relies on, kind of, modeling and figuring out how you actually make that work with industry,” he said. He noted that the plan was not thoroughly mapped out to 2050; in the 33 years until then, a lot can change.
The city, which contains hundreds of miles of coastline and at some points is barely five feet above sea level, is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to the potential for floods, which was seen to a chaotic degree in 2012 during Superstorm Sandy. The mayor, at the Red Hook press conference, pressed the issue.
“There's no question about it,” de Blasio said. “Hurricane Sandy, the nor'easter, all that occurred in that superstorm was because of climate change. We've already borne the brunt here in New York City. It's only going to get worse if something is not done quickly to reverse the course the Earth is on.”
Transit policy would likely be an area of significant interest in a New York committed to the Paris agreement, due to the amount of emissions from vehicles. The city is responsible for the large fleet of vehicles it owns, ranging from emergency vehicles, sanitation vehicles, the mayor’s transport, and others. Meanwhile, the MTA, which is controlled by the state rather than the city, is responsible for bus, subway, Metro North, and the Long Island Rail Road service. Some vehicles services are contracted to private vendors, such as school buses.
The MTA has long been a point of contention between City Hall and the Capitol, more so of late as the subways are in crisis, with funding negotiations part of the long-running feud between the governor and the mayor. But reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles will require cooperation, and will in all likelihood involve investment in MTA projects with the goal of reducing the number of vehicles on the road and reducing emissions from some of those that stay in circulation.
The MTA in April announced road tests for electric buses to join a fleet consisting of diesel, hybrid electric diesel, and natural gas-powered buses. The NYC Clean Fleet plan, part of OneNYC, calls for 2,000 new electric vehicles to be added to the city’s fleet by 2025.
But ambitious transportation projects, the type that could reduce the city’s carbon footprint significantly, frequently become stalled due to lack of adequate funding, or disagreements between Albany and the City, especially when those projects must go through the MTA. The first leg of the Second Avenue Subway was opened in January after being in progress for almost 90 years. The mayor’s request for a study to consider funding an extension of the subway along Brooklyn’s Utica Avenue, the southern stretch of which is a notorious subway desert, has led nowhere.
De Blasio has been behind an expansion of Citi Bike in the city and recently launched the first phase of a new ferry service that has initially shown to be quite popular.
Despite the fanfare around transportation policy, the lion’s share of city emissions comes not from vehicles, but from buildings. In a statement on June 8, City Council Member Brad Lander said, “without stronger energy efficiency standards for buildings – which account for 75 percent of New York City's total emissions – we will fail to meet our urgent goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.”
Lander and fellow Council Member Jumaane Williams called on the mayor to require large buildings to be retrofitted for energy efficiency. The administration has pursued policy regarding retrofitting through the One City Built to Last program and other initiatives; last October the mayor signed a trio of bills that, according to the mayor’s office, “are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 250,000 metric tons, and spur retrofits in 16,000 buildings.”
Unger believes that despite large and important steps in the right direction, through initiatives such as the 80 x 50 plan and the One City initiative, there are still large strides to be made.
“I think there’s a general recognition that the energy code needs to keep getting stronger,” he said, referring to the city’s Energy Conservation Code. He continued, “there are lots of places where the code still doesn’t make sense, where there are requirements that are kind of based on older technologies. Cleaning those up is something to look at.”
Some believe that the furor that erupted after Trump’s Paris Accord announcement is overstated. Unger believes that the city and state will not be impacted all that much by the withdrawal.
“You know you got a strong team, and the coach goes on hiatus, you can keep playing. And so you have a lot of states and a lot of cities that have strong policies and have strong industries, and those things aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “New York State was already going to be ahead of what it would be required to do under Obama’s Clean Power Plan. So the Clean Power Plan disappears; we’re still going to be ahead of it.”
The mayor has been criticized for lecturing the public on playing their part in lowering the city’s carbon footprint while having his SUV detail drive him 11 miles many days from Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side to his gym in Park Slope. The mayor has responded that his individual behavior is not what’s important, but rather, what’s important is encompassed within the policy he sets. “I don’t think the vast majority of New Yorkers care about this. They care about the results,” the mayor told NY1’s Errol Louis of his gym routine.
However, some believe that he is setting a bad example by exempting himself from the individual responsibilities associated with mitigating climate change while telling the public to change behavior, such as by using fewer plastic bags. The mayor argues that he is the mayor, with a unique life and schedule, and that he chips in in his own ways, like through recycling. He also said that the SUVs are hybrids and that because of his unique power as mayor, he can affect widespread policy that has a huge impact.
Unger believes that, despite the fanfare regarding the mayor’s gym routine, robust policy is indeed where the focus must be.
by Ben Brachfeld