C40 at Climate Week: Cities have a 2020 deadline

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C40 Cities, ‘a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change,’ opened Climate Week in New York City with a series of talks from mayors and climate leaders. Three days later Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, devastating that American territory, home to 3.4 million US citizens. The timing underlined the importance of the work of C40 in organizing cities to curb emissions. C40 member cities aim to accomplish the goals of the Paris Agreement even when there are inadequate policies at the national level.

Catherine McVay Hughes, former board chair of Lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1 and a veteran of the area’s struggles during the recovery from Sandy, attended the C40 Talks event and reported back for us here.

With the spike in weather disasters from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that devastated Texas and Florida, followed immediately by Hurricanes Jose and Maria that hammered the Caribbean a second time, the news cycle has focused on the drama of threat and rescue, and the enormous burden of recovery over the years and decades to come. Puerto Rico, with more American citizens than Iowa, is expected to be without power for months, and faces a gargantuan rebuilding task. Six days after Maria swept across the island, 44% of inhabitants are still without drinking water. Two days after the storm passed, the mayor of San Juan described her city’s crisis to the Washington Post:

Just days earlier in New York City, Climate Week 2017 opened to put the focus on systemic change: how to limit the impact of future disasters, and how to invest now to save lives and save money in the future.

The C40 Talks opened Climate Week by bringing mayors of the world’s greatest cities, governors, and business executives together with the UN General Assembly to demonstrate how pioneering leaders will deliver on the Paris Agreement, and on the 2020 deadline for curbing emissions in order to limit global warming to a 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise. [This limit is essential for coastal cities like New York.]

The group of cities that make up C40 membership now represent 650+ million people and one quarter of the global economy, united in a global alliance to deliver on the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

In June 2017 the decision by the Trump administration to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement left our country’s cities in the forefront of efforts to limit climate change. At that time, NYC Mayor de Blasio reaffirmed the NYC’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.

Essential facts from C40’s research:

  • American cities hold 86% of the US population and generate 91% of GDP. 
  • Ambitious action across all US cities can deliver more than one-third of the Paris Agreement goals.
  • Global action by cities can deliver 40% of pollution reduction needed to limit global warming to a 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise.

Therefore, C40 cities such as NYC play an increasingly important part – according to C40, cities are the “world’s last, best hope to reach the Paris Agreement goals, and we have less than 4 years to act.”  

The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, was the keynote speaker at the C40 Talks and shared the initiative announced on September 14, 2017, that NYC will be first city to mandate that existing buildings dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions. [Video of the Mayor’s address.]

The de Blasio Administration plan mandates NYC’s 14,500 least efficient buildings accelerate and deepen major efficiency upgrades. It is the most ambitious program of its kind in the nation, includes financing to support retrofits, steep penalties for non-compliance and creation of 17,000 green jobs. This means less carbon pollution, with citywide greenhouse gases reduced by 7 percent, and cleaner air from other pollutants, which will avoid an estimated 40 premature deaths and 100 emergency room visits related to asthma every year.

In his speech at the C40 event, Mayor de Blasio said, “We do not have the luxury of time when it comes to climate action. No matter what President Trump thinks, we must act now. Mayors from around the world have gathered together to adopt the goals of the Paris climate agreement, because we see first-hand how essential it is that we cut emissions, and build more fair and resilient cities.”

NYC has over 550 miles of coastline exposed to sea level rise, experienced billions of dollars of damage after Superstorm Sandy, as well as 44 deaths in the tristate area, and is still recovering, five years later.

C40’s Deadline 2020 research showed that “every city in the C40 network needs to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and work towards carbon neutrality by 2050. Action between now and 2020 will make or break this goal.”

NYC is assigned the hardest task for decarbonization, “Steep Decline” (dashed lines in graph below), because we have higher emissions per capita than other cities. This means that emissions need to be immediately and rapidly reduced, and New York is sufficiently developed to do so.

Projected average emissions per capita (left) and total annual emissions (right) for the four typologies under the 1.5 degree scenario.  Source: C40 Cities 2020 Deadline report

Following the C40 Talks event, I checked in with the mayor’s climate team about the policy details of the commitment. Thanks to Lauren Klein of the Mayor’s Office for supplying the answers below:

Is there any way to find out what the list of buildings is that NYC is referencing? Is there a website with a posting?

You can refer to the Energy and Water Data Disclosure for Local Law (2014), available on Open Data, for the energy use of buildings over 50,000 sf. This does not explicitly identify the 14,500 properties over the cap but provides the raw data that helped inform our analysis.

What will their actual reduction will be by 2020 (in line with the C40 report), vs. 2030?

Buildings will need to comply with the mandate by 2030. Affordable housing will comply by 2035.

By 2035 we expect that this mandate will result in at least a 7% decrease in citywide GHG emissions, compared to a 2005 baseline.

It is difficult to predict the rate at which building owners will complete retrofits so we cannot provide an expected decrease by 2020. To clarify the 2020 date- this is when the City will set targets for certain affordable housing and whole building energy use.

How will this be measured (e.g. self-reported or some other method)?

In 2030 or 2035, buildings must submit a report with on-site fossil fuel use and site energy use, any exemptions to their energy use such as process loads, and the building square footage, verified by a Professional Engineer. If the energy use is above the designated caps, a building owner will receive a violation scaled to building size and energy use.

Is the City still planning to release a document on the specifics of their plan (other than their news release?)

Yes the 1.5 plan will come this fall with a formal announcement.

NYC among the 2017 Finalists in Cities4Mobility Award from Bloomberg Philanthropies

At the C40Talks, it was also announced that American cities led the way amongst 25 climate change projects competing to be C40 Bloomberg Philanthropies Awards 2017 Winners. “Cities4Mobility: recognizing excellence in sustainable transportation” was awarded to New York City for “Cleaner Trucks for a Healthier South Bronx.” The Hunts Point Clean Truck Program in the South Bronx accelerates the purchasing of low-carbon vehicles, retrofits existing trucks and replaces old vehicles to reduce local air pollutants by 75% per truck.


As greenhouse gases accumulate there are many types of impacts (heat waves, stronger storms, diminished crop yields); it is sea level rise that may be the most existential challenge for New York. The range of projections, dependent on our rate of emissions and the natural response, is shown below, in a graph presented by the Sabin Center at Columbia Law School:

The lines, and the rising sea, do not stop in 2100 at the edge of the graph.

The success of C40’s work in explaining our timeline and New York City’s work to accelerate the fight against climate change and air pollution will have ramifications around the world, and for us here, too.


Editor’s note:

The choices we make in our generation will live on through the experiences of future generations of New Yorkers; to keep the city intact for them, our decisions now must be increasingly bold.

Justin Gillis, the longtime climate reporter of the New York Times, summed up the enormous responsibility we owe to the future in his final essay before leaving his regular beat to work on a book.

“Every time some politician stands up and claims that climate science is rife with uncertainties, a more honest person would add that those uncertainties could just as easily go against us as in our favor.

And if they do go against us? We might be looking at, oh, 80 or 100 feet of sea-level rise in the long haul, a direct result of the failures of this generation to get emissions under control. What kind of shape do you think Miami – or for that matter, New York – is likely to be in after 80 feet of sea-level rise?”

The C40 press statement prior to the panels was equally explicit:

“According to research by C40, concrete action in the years to 2020 is necessary to achieve the ambition of the Paris Agreement and prevent catastrophic climate change. Deadline 2020: How Cities Will Get the Job Done reveals that the world’s megacities must act to peak emissions by 2020 and then nearly halve every citizen’s carbon emissions within a decade.”

The good news is that groups like C40 are clearly spelling out our choices and local governments are beginning to respond. Now we need to hold everyone accountable, including ourselves, and make the next data points move towards the zero carbon future we need to achieve.


To help in the hurricane relief efforts:

The five living former presidents united to support this donor site for all three major hurricanes so far this season: oneamericaappeal.org

Hispanic Federation is relaying 100% of donations to organizations in need in Puerto Rico.

For many in Puerto Rico power may be gone for six months or more. The Power Rockaways Resilience team is at work connecting Puerto Ricans with solar panels for self-sufficient power: donations currently accepted and matched by a generous supporter up to $50,000.

And for people seeking more information about conditions on in towns around Puerto Rico, where communication is still spotty, Univision has created an updated interactive map


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