Local Laws Take Global Climate Action

As global climate strikes unfold across the world, local legislatures and private actors must find ways to collaborate on battling climate change. In order to become more resilient, cities and developers are realizing that effective decarbonization policy is necessary to prepare for the next century.

Buildings are historically among the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Previous attempts to address this issue included the establishment of efficiency standards, most of which are not mandatory. Unfortunately, when it is left up to the building owner to adopt certain standards, they will likely fail to do so when it imposes a significant economic burden. Rather, successfully reducing building emissions requires active participation and cooperation between local legislatures and private actors.

Recognizing that buildings are among the world’s largest sources of carbon emissions, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability realized that solving the climate crisis must start in places where we live, work, and play.[1] In NYC, buildings are the primary cause of carbon pollution and the biggest contributor of emissions.[2] In fact, the carbon footprint of buildings (primarily the product of energy used to power, heat, and cool buildings) accounts for almost 70% of NYC’s greenhouse gas emissions.[3]

ONENYC 2050, Vol. 7: A Livable Climate

Regulating building emissions would transform the carbon landscape in NYC since they buildings are responsible for 2/3 of NYC’s annual emissions

In response, on May 19, 2019, the New York City Council passed Local Law 97, which is often referred to as the world’s most ambitious climate legislation to tackle emissions from existing buildings. The local law was just one part of the recent comprehensive climate legislation passed by the Council this past spring, which included a number of environmentally focused initiatives. Local Law 97 establishes the Office of Building Energy and Emissions Performance[4] and sets greenhouse gas emissions limits for existing buildings. The law affects buildings greater than 25,000 square feet, which covers roughly 50,000 buildings and nearly 60% of the city’s building area.[5] For reference, for covered buildings, this means a 26% carbon cut (5.3 million metric tons), the equivalent of San Francisco’s citywide emissions.[6] Overall, the law aims to achieve 40% emissions reduction by 2030 and 80% reduction by 2050.[7]

Currently, many buildings are significantly above the emissions limits. As a result, the law also identifies several ways to reduce emissions and achieve compliance levels, including operational changes, comprehensive retrofits, purchase of GHG offsets, purchase of renewable energy credits, and use of clean distributed energy resources.[8] Any failure to comply with the law will result in steep fines, calculated at $268 per metric ton that a building’s carbon footprint exceeds its set limit, annually.

Local Law 97 is a perfect example of strong policy at the local level that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Looking forward, it will be interesting to see which techniques and strategies building owners adopt to meet their emission limits or whether this law will serve as an example for other municipalities that are interested in adopting similar climate legislation.

[1] Mark Chambers, Direct of Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Testimony of the Mayor’s Office Before the NYC Council Committee on Environmental Protection (Dec. 4, 2018), available at, https://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3761078&GUID=B938F26C-E9B9-4B9F-B981-1BB2BB52A486

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] The Office of Building Energy and Emissions Performance is a new office within the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) and is established to oversee implementation of the law, including creating a method of assessing building energy use. The Department will also work with DOB to develop rules.

[5] NYC Building Emissions Law Summary, Urban Green (last updated July 9, 2019), https://www.urbangreencouncil.org/sites/default/files/building_emissions_law_summary.pdf.

[6] Id.

[7] New York City’s Roadmap to 80×50, New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/sustainability/downloads/pdf/publications/New%20York%20City’s%20Roadmap%20to%2080%20x%2050_Final.pdf

[8] Committee on Environmental Protection, Minutes of the Stated Meeting, New York City Council (April 18, 2009)

available at https://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3761078&GUID=B938F26C-E9B9-4B9F-B981-1BB2BB52A486

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