In Climate Change Fight, New York City Will Push Skyscrapers To Slash Emissions A law — the first in the world — will require retrofits of large buildings, with a price tag in the billions. Buildings are responsible for about 70% of the city's greenhouse gas emissions.

To Fight Climate Change, New York City Will Push Skyscrapers To Slash Emissions

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On the steps of New York City Hall, more than a hundred people celebrated the passage of a landmark climate bill last week. It doesn't target cars or coal; it regulates big buildings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho - dirty buildings have got to go. Hey, hey, ho, ho...

MARTIN: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the bill into law soon. He says it's the first law in the world to require emissions cuts from existing buildings, and it could serve as a model for other cities. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Think of New York city's famous skyscrapers - now imagine the power it takes to heat and cool and illuminate them, and maybe it's not so surprising that buildings are responsible for two-thirds of the city's greenhouse gas emissions. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called it the mother lode in an interview with NPR.

BILL DE BLASIO: These buildings are the single biggest piece of the problem that hasn't been addressed, and we have the tools to do it right now.

DOMONOSKE: Everything about this new law is big; it focuses on big buildings and calls for big cuts to emissions - ultimately, 80%. And if buildings don't comply, they will face big fines.

DE BLASIO: In the case of the biggest buildings, if these goals are not met, the fines can be $1 million per year or more, even.

DOMONOSKE: So what does it take for a building to slash its carbon emissions? Take a ride on the Empire State Building's elevator.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to the world's most famous building, and you get to see it built. Keep your arms and legs inside.

DOMONOSKE: For the last 10 years, this landmark has gone through an ambitious energy efficiency overhaul. Tourists visiting the 102-story landmark can't see them, but retrofits are everywhere - insulated windows, dimmable lights, upgraded air conditioning, tools for tenants to cut consumption, even that elevator is more efficient.

ANTHONY MALKIN: There is no silver bullet; these are lots of little pieces, so we call it silver buckshot.

DOMONOSKE: Anthony Malkin is the CEO of the Empire State Realty Trust, which owns the building.

MALKIN: When you reduce energy consumption, you reduce carbon output. It's very simple.

DOMONOSKE: The Empire State Building has dramatically slashed both energy use and emissions, but New York City's new legislation ultimately calls for even more cuts.

MALKIN: This is absolutely a step that goes beyond anything that we've even accomplished in our buildings.

DOMONOSKE: The new law will carry a hefty price tag - collectively, the required retrofits will cost an estimated $4 billion. But that's just looking at the costs; there are savings, too, from lower bills over time. The Empire State Building spent millions on those retrofits, but it has already made back the investment, and then some. So some of the required retrofits will pay for themselves, but de Blasio acknowledges that won't always be true.

DE BLASIO: They are the kinds of mandates that some building owners will find to be, you know, stretch goals and will find to be difficult, but that's the point.

DOMONOSKE: That is, the law is designed to push owners to make changes they wouldn't otherwise. New York is already a very expensive city. Large commercial landlords are frustrated that they have to make changes when other buildings don't and suggest the law could drive business away. But the mayor emphasizes that financing will be available, and the bill's supporters respond to concerns over cost by pointing out that climate change poses an existential threat to this coastal city; they recall the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy. Maritza Silva-Farrell runs a nonprofit that pushed for the bill's passage.

MARITZA SILVA-FARRELL: The lives of our kids and our grandkids are at stake, and we really need to take bold actions.

DOMONOSKE: She asks anyone running a cost analysis to remember to account for those human lives. Camila Domonoske, NPR News, New York City.

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