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Sustainability After Bloomberg: Candidates Offer Hints of a Vision

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One of the most pressing questions about the end of Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor is what will become of his groundbreaking efforts to make New York a more environmentally sustainable city. 


In a forum organized last night by the New York League of Conservation Voters, nine mayoral hopefuls provided strands of information that — if nothing else — pointed at the depth and complexity of the challenges ahead.


Several candidates made the point that Bloomberg’s achievements were only the first steps in a lengthy process. Said Republican Joe Lhota: “Bloomberg set us on the path to sustainability. We need to take it to the next level.” 


The candidates addressed questions on reducing the city’s carbon output, protecting New York from rising sea levels and future catastrophic storms, transitioning to more sustainable sources of energy, and guaranteeing access to parkland for all residents.


While a number of candidates referenced PlaNYC, the Bloomberg administration’s far-reaching sustainability plan, none said what would become of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, created to “develop, implement and track” the progress of the plan. 


However, there was general support for Bloomberg’s objective of an 80 percent reduction in New York City’s carbon emissions by 2050. “That’s where we need to be looking,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the Democratic forerunner.


Eight of the nine candidates — except for Republican John Catsimatidis — accepted the basic premise that climate change is a man-made phenomenon. While some of the candidates articulated more of an overall vision for a sustainable New York than others, they shared a core set of interests. 


For instance, several candidates agreed that retrofitting the city’s building stock and lowering energy consumption is a key sustainability objective for several candidates, including Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Lhota. The need to expand sources of financing for retrofitting was raised by City Comptroller John Liu, who added: “The City could have moved more aggressively.”


All of the candidates agreed that the city needed to increase its use of sustainable sources of energy. But ,when asked, none were willing to definitively state — as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has — that the Indian Point nuclear power plant 47 miles to the north of the city in Westchester County should be closed. Licenses for Indian Point’s two operating reactors expire later this year and in 2015.


Sal Albanese said the city needed “bold leadership” on solar, wind and electric cars “so we can close Indian Point.”


Forum moderator and WNYC host Brian Lehrer brought up a new Stanford/Cornell study, which argues that by 2030, the state’s power demand for all sectors (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, industry) could be met using renewable sources. 


Lehrer noted that the Stanford study specifically mentions developing off-shore wind farms. 


Former City Comptroller Bill Thompson replied that wind farms were “worth trying … New York City probably is a perfect place.” Liu wondered if the city had “forgotten” about solar energy. 


When asked whether New York City needed to develop a policy on natural gas and hydraulic fracturing, there was widespread agreement that drilling in the city’s upstate watershed should remain off-limits. Both Albanese and De Blasio expressed their general opposition to hydraulic fracturing in New York State.


But there was less clarity on whether the city should expand its use of natural gas and permit the construction of new pipelines as Bloomberg has advocated. Quinn said: “You can’t rush into something like the Spectra pipeline [which will cross through the West Village and transport gas extracted, at least partially, by hyrofracking] … But I would not take it off the table.” 


Liu argued in response that the city simply had not invested enough in renewable energy.


How and where to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, and how to protect the city from future storms will be a major sustainability challenge for New York City’s next mayor. 


Lhota maintained that structures in the Rockaways and Brooklyn could be built to withstand flooding, while neighborhoods sitting upon the coastal marshes of Staten Island should probably not be rebuilt. 


Lhota asserted that the city had “failed” during Hurricane Sandy. “We have to find a way to protect lower Manhattan”, he said, adding that soft-infrastructure solutions, like oyster beds, could help to mitigate the impact of storm surges. 


Thompson added: “We need a deputy mayor for infrastructure.” 


The candidates also addressed the city’s ongoing waste challenges. All of the candidates supported Bloomberg’s target of recycling 30 percent of the city’s waste stream by 2017. Only 15 percent is currently recycled. 


How waste will be transported — and through which neighborhoods — proved more contentious. A number of the candidates expressed reservations about re-opening the 91st Street waste transfer station in Manhattan. Quinn said she supported the idea.


Lehrer raised another environmental justice issue: New York City does not currently meet minimum federal air quality standards, and the resulting public health impact weighs disproportionately on communities of color. 


Speaker Quinn responded that new forms of rapid transit, use of marine-based solid waste transfer, and the phasing out of heavy heating oils would help to address the problem.


Environmental justice also factors into public access to open, green spaces. 


Former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, who is running on the Independence Party line, noted that some communities are left behind as public-private partnerships to maintain city parks become more common. 


“There should not be discrimination in the quality of parkland in the event that there is no wealthy partner,” he said.


Several candidates stressed that investments in energy efficiency, mass transit and other sustainability strategies would have another critical result for New York City residents.  “They will create jobs,” said Thompson. He added, “Sustainability is part of every discussion.”


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Guest Sunday, 14 February 2016