Carbon, the city, & Local Law 97

Scroll this

City Atlas plans for 2019 were sketched out during our December 2018 testimony to the NYC Council on Local Law 97. While praising the decarbonization goals of the real estate law, which focuses on targets for building emissions, Richard Reiss described the need for an immediate public discussion of the full scope of New York City’s carbon footprint, along with the disparity in income that is reflected in New York’s emission profile (a subject touched on as well by C40 Cities, an organization that NYC is signatory to).

Theo Miller then introduced our proposal for Percent for Climate, a policy idea that would link climate education to the scale of New York’s economy, by requiring one percent of the budget for City construction projects be set aside for public education and dialogue on climate change and decarbonization. This could be applied to the City’s $10B plan for Manhattan coastal resilience projects, and would make New York City a leader in creating an informed, engaged public participating in realistic planning for the future.

A cooperative public is the only way New York City will be able to achieve its own decarbonization targets. Some form of a massively scaled-up information program will be essential, and will need to begin in 2020 if the 2°C targets are to remain viable.

Transcript with our ideas follows, and the matching video clip from the hearing, with Councilmember Costa Constantinides, is at the foot of this post:


Thank you for your patience and thank you Councilmember Constantinides. 

My name is Richard Reiss. I edit a project called City Atlas based at the Institute for Sustainable Cities at Hunter College.

Right now I’m speaking on my own behalf and then Theo, who works with us, is going to also describe an idea. Really what I wanted to do today is say the bills are terrific, so we totally support the bills.

A concern is that the focus on buildings can lead to tunnel vision, and I’ll describe that very quickly. In the time that we were here people are around the city are making money. The city has a trillion dollar economy.

A McKinsey partner maybe made enough money while we were in this room to send his family to Greece for Christmas, which is probably happening.

In that trip, the family is going to quadruple, at least, their share of the building’s footprint.

So the city has framed the 70% from buildings, but the flip side is if you make over $100,000 a year, your share of the building’s footprint is probably less than 10% of your emissions.

Most of it is discretionary–plane travel, the things you buy and the things you eat.

[The Paris 2050 report cited below provides a better example for true city accounting, as does the C40 Cities report “The Future of Urban Consumption, and the Absolute Zero report produced by Cambridge University.These reports are each an attempt to launch an accurate public dialogue about carbon emissions.]

The city needs a full conversation and the books I passed along begin that conversation. Of particular interest is a book that is a report for Paris. That’s how Paris is dealing with it. It’s a small paperback. It’s a terrific example.

It’s one of the only English language copies–it’s precious, but I wanted you to have it. They gave us their last four English copies; the team that did that book is terrific, and they want to work with us. They’d love to work with the city. To follow up on this we can hopefully communicate with you separately. We’re on Twitter @CityAtlas.

[Moving to demonstrate charts.]

A couple of quick demonstrations. As you know, we have to decarbonize quickly–that’s what this is saying.

[The graphic below, from Carbon Brief, is an interactive version of the emission path shown in the hearing.]

That’s probably not possible anymore.

This is with carbon capture. [IPCC SR15. The yellow area represents a hypothetical carbon capture solution called ‘Biofuel Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage,’ or BECCS.]

I just think its what part of the public dialogue has to include. [For reference: the area required for BECCS is up to one third of the planet’s arable land.]

My concern with the focus on buildings is that the public will see that legislation going forward and will think that it’s done, it’s taken care of. But it’s not, it’s just one step. 

What’s important also to understand that emissions are a function of income.

Low-income New Yorkers are actually close to meeting the target because they use public transportation, and they’re not flying away five times a year. It’s your high-income New Yorkers that have a 50-ton footprint. This was a surprise to me until we began studying emissions, and 50 tons is just an average of the top 10% of the US [many, or most, professionals, especially those that use air travel frequently, fall in this range]. And there are people at 100 tons, and more.

So, Amazon just brought 25,000 jobs to the city. Those are going to be coders and people making good money. They’re going to land more up here [at the top of the emissions bracket] and it’s not going to be–it’s going to be because they’re making money, and they’re doing what you do when you make money. [The Amazon deal subsequently fell through, but an equivalent set of tech jobs have begun to arrive via Google and Facebook, both big tech employers in NYC. And of course NYC is full of bankers and consultants at a similar pay scale.]

So we need a whole conversation about this. The Paris book is a great example.

The last thing I’m going to say—and then Theo has an idea that he’ll describe—

We designed a game to show you how to decarbonize the city in terms of energy, and we’ll have the ability to produce it in January.

And we want to get it to the City Council. We can train your staff to play it, and then it will be a good tool for working out some of these things.

And now I’ll turn it over to Theo.


So I guess I’m the last one talking all day, so I’ll be really quick. I’m probably the least experienced and least qualified to be talking.

Costa Constantinides:  

Absolutely not, we want to hear everyone’s thoughts and your thoughts matter just as much as everyone else’s. So thank you for being here and thank you for participating.


Thanks for allowing me to talk.

My name is Theo Miller, I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I work for Richard at City Atlas and I’m talking on behalf of myself.

While the bills being discussed this morning are well-intentioned and necessary, they overlook the most important aspect in NYC’s response to climate change—public will.

The carbon reductions referenced throughout today will simply not be achieved without a willing, consenting public.

The protests in France over the past couple of weeks should be an important lesson that top-down regulations will not be enough on their own. [Referring to the Yellow Vest protest movement.]

New Yorkers must be given the opportunity to learn, workshop, and discuss climate policies.

Clearly the buildings are really important. I don’t think that we can forget about the people and their behaviors and their interests that are inside of those buildings.

Thus, in order to fund climate education, NYC needs to pass a law to basically fund this continuous education. Our idea is a Percent for Climate law.

Similar to Percent for Art, Percent for Climate would require that 1% of the budget for city-funded construction projects be spent on climate education. Just as the City recognized that for over 30 years the art sector is essential for vibrant NY, it’s time to do the same for climate education. [The MTA has a parallel Percent for Art program.]

I think it is true to all of our beliefs that NY has a truly great opportunity to be at the forefront of the response to climate change. Yet for that to actually happen, it must be a mission that is not only passively accepted, but actively desired by most New Yorkers.

A lot has been said today about inherent systemic political impediments to effective city-wide climate change policies; it seems to be accepted as fact that well-meaning regulations will be opposed by financially-motivated business sectors, supported by a few environmental groups and passionate individuals and basically go virtually go unnoticed by a vast majority of New Yorkers.

The resulting process is slow, complicated, and probably kind of thankless for you guys.

But the existing political structures can be changed. Just because climate change has been this impossible issue for the last 40 years doesn’t mean that it has to continue to be. So I think any investment that we’re trying to make through regulation into the future of NYC in relation to climate change needs to be simultaneous investment in educating New Yorkers as to what is going on and their role in solutions. Thanks. 

Costa Constantinides:

Theo, I don’t disagree with you at all. We’ve actually passed a resolution here in the council asking Albany to approve K-12 climate change education.

So whether you’re a kindergarten student just getting started with your education or a high school senior about to graduate that you would receive climate change education that was appropriate. And not just as part of a curriculum where you check a box and say “ok we did the climate change thing.” But actually integrating into conversations about political science, and economics, because everything we do now is framed by climate change.

So I wholeheartedly agree with you and I think that I would look forward to partnering with you and the work that you do. 

We’ve built hydroponic science labs in my district. Actually, 11 of my 17 schools, we’ve funded through my office hydroponic science labs. We’re funding solar projects on our city’s schools, and not only to get the renewable energy benefit, but also have the panels to have the students to learn from–like here’s how much fossil fuels we’ve averted, here’s how much greenhouse gas emissions we’ve averted, here how much renewable energy has been created.

So when these buildings go online in the near future there’s opportunities not just to not burn fossil fuels, but to have young people start the fire in their own head on what we could do better to have in their communities greener buildings and a greener future. 

Theo Miller and Richard Reiss gave testimony to the New York City Council during the hearing on Local Law 97
  • The discrepancy on NYC’s emission estimates comes about because many individual activities are not included in the city’s current emissions accounting; for example, in New York City’s own record keeping, jet fuel at La Guardia and JFK is as big as city’s entire electricity use (about 25% of the total footprint, as shown on p.42), but jet fuel is not counted in progress reports.