Melissa Wright, Associate Director, City Energy Project, New York

Some good news out of the departing Bloomberg Administration in NYC – citywide climate change pollution is down 19% since 2005. This means that the city is already nearly two-thirds of the way toward reaching its PlaNYC goal of reducing this pollution 30 percent by 2030. Yet, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and with ever-growing global concern about the impacts of climate change, there is still an enormous need to reduce emissions even further, and as quickly as possible.

Fortunately, Mayor Bloomberg’s policies have focused on one of the most effective ways a city can reduce its carbon pollution: tackling its buildings.   In most cities, energy used in buildings is the largest source of greenhouse has emissions; in New York City, buildings are responsible for nearly 75% of emissions. That’s why the Bloomberg administration announced a new initiative today – as part of the Mayor’s Carbon Challenge – that encourages the multifamily building sector to reduce energy waste and cut down the cost of living in New York by lowering energy costs. Multifamily buildings make up the largest chunk of the city’s building stock, so the opportunity to lower climate change pollution here is huge. Among NYC’s large buildings (those over 50,000 square feet), multifamily properties account for 76% of the total number of buildings; 65% of gross floor area; 50% of the energy used; 55% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Number of Properties, Median Source EUI, and Total Energy by Building Sector

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Ten of the city’s leading residential property management firms – including Douglas Elliman Property Management, FirstService Residential, and Rose Associates – have already stepped up and announced they are accepting the challenge, committing to cut emissions by 30 percent across their portfolios in just 10 years. These firms will focus their energy efficiency efforts on a total of 200-500 buildings. This initiative could reduce carbon emissions by at least 100,000 metric tons per year – that’s equivalent to taking more than 20,000 passenger vehicles off the road. These top firms will be leading by example. They will be the standard-setting companies for others in New York and cities around the country, showing how to shrink their carbon footprints through energy efficiency improvements. 

The city has already made similar challenges to three other sectors of New York’s building stock through the Carbon Challenge:  universities, hospitals, and large commercial tenants, and there have been some impressive success stories, with six portfolios in these sectors having achieved 30% reductions in five years – half the time allotted here. Since its launch in 2006, 17 university systems, 11 large hospital organizations, and 10 global companies have signed on. Together, the current Carbon Challenge participants have reduced emissions by an average of 16 percent.  Once they achieve the full Carbon Challenge target, the current participants will eliminate more than 650,000 metric tons of carbon—equivalent to taking more than 135,000 passenger vehicles off the road.

It seems likely that the Challenge to the multi-family sector can replicate the success of the earlier challenges since there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that can be addressed with relevant off-the-shelf technologies.  For example, stairwell lights don’t have to be fully on 24/7: they can be dimmed to a lower level when the stairs are not being used.  And there are better ways to control over-heated apartments than opening the window:  steam radiators can be outfitted with control valves that turn them off when the temperature is sufficient.

The benefits of the city’s program don’t have to be limited to New York – it is something that can be replicated all around the country to help cities curb climate change pollution and reduce energy costs. In fact, President Obama recently announced a similar project – the federal Better Buildings Challenge – to address the multifamily sector across the country, and it that will do just that. With the real estate industry in New York and across the country rising to the occasion, we can make real progress toward cleaner, more affordable cities to live in.