The night that Bill de Blasio was elected mayor a crowd gathered at the Park Slope Armory awaiting his victory speech, steadily filling in the horseshoe between the temporary stage and the curve of the running track inside the cavernous gymnasium. There was an electric feeling even though the outcome of the race had not been in doubt for weeks.
A veteran environmental advocate in the crowd, speaking to a reporter, did harbor doubt, though of a different kind. Like many in his movement, he was unsure what de Blasio’s win meant for sustainability policy in the city.
After all, the Democratic nominee had said relatively little about environmental issues during the campaign, focusing on stop-and-frisk, pre-K and income inequality. For some advocates this was cause for concern, especially after the Mike Bloomberg era, when the PlaNYC sustainability agenda was a signature City Hall policy. The New York League of Conservation Voters had endorsed Council Speaker Christine Quinn instead of de Blasio in that year’s primary, and the organization had waited until a week before Election Day to finally give de Blasio its blessing over Republican Joe Lhota—not exactly a glowing recommendation.
On Election Night, as the room buzzed with anticipation for the arrival of the first Democratic mayor-elect in two decades, the advocate shrugged his shoulders: “We don’t know quite what we’re getting.”
Four years later, many environmentalists say they have been pleasantly surprised with the way de Blasio took ownership of the sustainability issue and the ambitious goals he set for reducing the city’s carbon footprint and waste, as well as his agenda to improve the city’s parks.
The question these advocates raise is about whether and when the mayor will deliver on those promises. The optimists express hope that the mayor’s second term will yield important next steps. The skeptics think his work to date suggests a lack of practical commitment to lofty goals.
“At the boldest stroke you could say that his – he has said the right things and has indicated that his values are in the right place and the hope is that in his second term, should he be re-elected, there will be a little more attention focused on the implementation side of things,” says Eric Goldstein, senior attorney and New York City environment director at NRDC.
Reacting to a changing world
While Bloomberg ended up with a well-deserved reputation as an environmentalist, he didn’t arrive at City Hall with that focus. Bloomberg had been in office nearly five years before he started the process to create PlaNYC. And the billionaire mayor’s embrace of the issue was as much showmanship as it was substance. The mayor rented out the Queens Museum of Art and brought in Tom Brokaw to headline the December 2006 launch of the PlaNYC process, then took over the Museum of Natural History to release the plan itself on Earth Day 2007.
De Blasio faced a different world when he took power. Not only had Bloomberg established a local commitment to sustainability, but the gravity of the threat of climate change had grown even more clear over the final years of Bloomberg’s tenure, as projections of sea-level rise grew increasingly alarming, the federal government’s inertia deepened and Superstorm Sandy gave New York a deadly preview of what a wetter future could look like.
Yet the housing plan and pre-K were de Blasio’s first-year priorities, and sustainability was one area of city policy that seemed to suffer from the slow pace of appointments by the new mayor: The office leading that effort was vacant from February to December 2014, when Nilda Mesa—who had joined the administration three months earlier—was named director of a newly created Office of Sustainability.
Even before filling out his staff, however, de Blasio had begun making ambitious environmental promises. In September 2014 he committed the city to reducing its carbon emissions 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050 (a pledge taken up by many cities around the world that is referred to as “80 x 50”) and City Hall vowed to retrofit some 3,000 city-owned buildings by 2025.
On Earth Day 2015 the mayor released his signature environmental plan: OneNYC, which wove environmental sustainability into the mayor’s familiar pledge to tackle income inequality. “Strength is about everything from economic growth to resiliency and sustainability, to economic inclusion,” the mayor said as he released the report at The Point, a community development corporation in a section of the Bronx where poverty, health disparities, transit barriers, industrial employment and coastal risks mix. “Strength is about a community of people that believe they belong and that they have real opportunity. Justice is about people knowing fairness is there for them. This is what animates this report.”
Mesa, who left the administration in the summer of 2016 to return to Columbia University, says the OneNYC idea of linking equity and environmentalism appealed to de Blasio “instantly.”
“He took a great deal of interest” in the details of OneNYC, Mesa recalls. “It wasn’t like a rubber stamping at all. He was really engaged. He asked a lot of tough questions, and sent us back to refine what we had.”
OneNYC included a pledge to lift 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty or near poverty by 2025 as well as a set of environmental goals, like sending zero waste to landfills and making air quality in New York better than any other city by 2030.
Last year, the city released a plan for implementing the 80 x 50 pledge. Since then, “We really have been diving into the details of what does that look like in terms of our building infrastructure, what does that look like in terms of our transportation system, what does it look like in terms of our water systems and our waste systems and how are we really changing business as usual to be able to look at both reducing our emissions but also really responding to the changes in climate that are already occurring,” says Mark Chambers, the mayor’s current director of sustainability. “So we’re constantly iterating on that. But what we’re doing is not just talking about it.”
A day after President Trump rescinded the United States’ commitment to the Paris Agreement last summer, de Blasio issued an executive order committing the city to making emissions reductions aligned with the Paris deal’s aspirational goal of keeping global temperature growth to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That would require the city to ultimately become carbon neutral, a more ambitious goal even than 80 x 50.
But hitting the Paris target also requires faster action, because in order to limit the buildup in carbon that will trigger temperature rise years from now, emissions must be reduced significantly by 2020. “We need to limit emissions quickly—more quickly than a lot of folks had planned,” says Chambers.
From the outset, Mesa says, OneNYC put an emphasis on tracking and measuring outcomes. The city also took steps to link the strategy to resources. “We aligned the OneNYC process with the budget process and the 10-year capital planning process. We made sure that, for every bloody initiative, we had funding for it,” she says. There were good initiatives considered during the drafting process that were left out of the final plan for lack of budget, Mesa recalls.
And like everything in the de Blasio administration, achievements under OneNYC are viewed through an “equity lens.”
In its most recent progress report on OneNYC, released last April, the de Blasio administration pointed to dozens of initiatives aimed at achieving a smaller carbon footprint, cleaner air, better water quality, and fewer contaminated brownfields and a more equitable park system.
Much has been done. Some 1,300 buildings have been retrofitted, the city’s electric vehicle fleet has grown and the mayor has expanded goals for solar generation in the city. New programs make it easier to donate rather than dump old stuff, and there are dozens of schools devoted to the principle of “zero waste.” Since 2014, 577 brownfield lots have been cleaned up and $300 million has been spent on improvements to neighborhood parks.
There also have been setbacks, like the court ruling that blocked a city law that would have imposed a fee on plastic carryout bags. The city is now waiting for a state task force to recommend an alternative approach.
According to the mayor’s own reports, the impact of all the new programs has been mixed. The city’s diversion rate—the share of waste that ends up somewhere other than a landfill—has inched up. In 2015, the most recent figures available, greenhouse gas emissions were down 14 percent from 2005 levels. The city slipped from having the nation’s fourth cleanest air to fifth place; the administration says air quality increased in New York, just not as much as it did in a few other cities.
Compost cans and neighborhood parks
Among advocates, reaction to the mayor’s efforts depends on which element of the environment you’re talking about.
“Sanitation has been a real bright spot,” says Goldstein, who singles out Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia for praise. “She’s making significant progress at implementing a sustainable system for handling organics – food and yard waste, the largest single piece of the municipal waste stream.” Indeed, 3.3 million New Yorkers now have curbside organics collection service, and the city says it will offer everyone either curbside service or “convenient neighborhood drop-off sites” for food and yard waste by the end of 2018.
Other advocates note that the city must do more to tackle commercial organics—refuse from restaurants, for example—and be alert to the possibility that running separate truck trips to scoop up organic waste could increase carbon emissions.
But the progress is clear—and it lessens the likelihood that the city would send more trash to “waste to energy” incinerators to meet its “zero waste to landfills” pledge.
There’s also been bold action to rein in the commercial waste industry, with the city establishing a process where carters bid to serve different geographic zones—an effort to reduce duplicative truck mileage. And the city is exploring a “single stream” recycling program, with results from a feasibility study due next year.
When it comes to parks, the administration’s investments in low-income communities and efforts to reduce physical barriers to park access “are real investments in neighborhoods for parks that need it,” according to New Yorkers for Parks executive director Lynn Kelly.
But Kelly believes the administration needs to treat parks as an integral part of larger goals, like creating affordable housing and improving mental health, not a secondary priority. While the mayor has increased parks spending, the department still has a very small headcount, and less than 1 percent of the city’s budget is spent on parks.
“It’s great to add capital money,” Kelly says. “But when you don’t have the staff to do the maintenance, what’s the point?” She adds: “The equity lens is great, but you have to provide the funding.”
Meanwhile, the city’s longest-standing environmental problem is probably the pollution of its waterways, where city sewage overflows cause violations of the Clean Water Act that the feds have been hounding New York to fix for decades. De Blasio inherited an obligation to create long-term clean-up plans for 11 individual waterways and the harbor as a whole, and his Department of Environmental Protection has issued several of those game-plans.
Water advocates don’t like what they’ve seen. In a recent bulletin to members, the S.W.I.M (Storm Water Infrastructure Matters) Coalition said the city’s long-term plans “will not make our waterways safe for recreational activities.”
“They will leave hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage overflows in each waterbody annually, on dozens of occasions per year,” the note read. “Many of the plans do not reduce overflow volume at all and instead call for diverting raw sewage into the East River or dumping chlorine into raw sewage before discharging it to rivers, creeks, and bays.”
There’s particular concern that the city “seems to be backing away from previous commitments” to green infrastructure, according to one advocate. Last summer the city told state regulators it would not hit its modest target for applying “GI” to its stormwater reduction efforts.
The de Blasio administration counters that harbor quality is better than it’s been in more than a century. “This improvement can largely be attributed to the more than $10 billion invested by DEP over the last decade in upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plants and related clean water efforts,” according to a statement. “DEP will commit a similar dollar figure over the next decade – and this includes the largest and most aggressive green infrastructure program in the country.”
Climate plan faces criticism
De Blasio announced in September the first regulatory step toward the Paris goals – a plan to cap the amount of fossil-fuel usage by large buildings, impose fines on owners who exceed the cap, and generate a 7 percent reduction in city carbon emissions by 2035.
The proposal ran into criticism from all corners: building owners who worried about the fines, housing advocates who wondered if costs would be passed on to tenants, Council members who resented not being consulted, and environmental advocates who said the plan used the wrong tools—a punitive fine as opposed to offering training or assistance to incentivize cooperation—or didn’t go far enough.
“The mayor’s plan is a timid, too-weak proposal that does not even reach the pace of the cuts needed to reach the Paris agreement,” says Pete Sikora, a Brooklyn climate activist who works for New York Communities for Change. “It threatens affordable housing and doesn’t create enough good jobs.” Sikora says the city should instead embrace the Climate Works for All Plan, which calls for more public investment in retrofitting buildings.
Asked if implementation of the mayor’s Paris commitment is lagging behind the promises, Chambers says, “It’s not running slower. It is being constantly updated with new information. All the factors affecting it are not static,” He added: “It’s all about impact — about getting the largest actions out of the way. I don’t think we’re off track.”
City Council environmental committee chairperson Costa Constantinides introduced a Council bill this week that embodied the mayor’s proposal, with some improvements, like setting different reduction targets for different types of buildings and creating a working group to come up with an achievable standard.
But the basic concept of a cap on fossil fuel usage remains, the councilmember says, because, “in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, when you do a reduction on-site, you also get an air-quality improvement for residents there.” And while rent-regulated buildings will be given extra time to comply with the mandate, Constantinides’ bill would apply the fossil-fuel standard to them as well. Otherwise “we’re setting up two classes of residents in this city: those who can afford good air quality, and those who can’t.”
Jordan Levine, spokesman for the New York League of Conservation Voters—which has endorsed the mayor more enthusiastically this time around—acknowledges the questions and concerns about the fossil-fuel cap for buildings. But, he says, in the complex and evolving world of climate policy, one has to credit City Hall with trying to make its goals into working policies. “This is ambitious. We just want to make sure that we get it right,” he says. “They’ve shown us a path to get to 80 x 50. There’s still a gap with this policy. But it makes a substantial dent.”
Among de Blasio’s opponents on the ballot for November 7, only independent candidate Mike Tolkin devotes any substantial literature to sustainability—backing congestion pricing, converting all public vehicles to electric, boosting the system for generating local produce and developing new sources of renewable energy like “sea-based solar panels.” Republican Nicole Malliotakis, who received a 72 out of 100 possible points in Environmental Advocates’ 2017 ranking of state Assembly members on environmental issues, does not address environmental issues in her platform but does offer ideas on improving storm resiliency
A moving target
“We’ve been able to pass a lot of good legislation together,” Constantinedes says of his relationship with the mayor. He points to bills boosting biofuels and introducing the social cost of carbon into city environmental regulation. But he admits that there’s work to be done if the city is to get close to the goals the mayor has set. “Is there more good that we can do? Absolutely.”
If de Blasio entered office facing low expectations from environmentalists, his ambitious goal-setting has now created much higher ones for a second term, if one occurs. While Bloomberg charted a bold environmental path for the city, de Blasio has been tasked with actually figuring out how to make the aspirations real. And the sense of urgency embedded in the Paris Agreement is genuine: If the city is going to take meaningful action, it has to do so soon.
Other environmental challenges will also become more pressing. The Indian Point nuclear plant, source of much of the city’s power, will shut down during what would de Blasio’s final year in office, creating a gap he city will have to fill without creating new environmental problems. Upstate, the city is now negotiating a new “filtration avoidance” agreement with watershed towns and federal regulators, in which it will pledge a strict regime of protection to avoid the enormously expensive task of filtering water from the Catskills and Delaware watersheds. Getting that right is critical.
No matter what, de Blasio will be busy during his second term—either addressing environmental issues or fending off demands that he do so. While the mayor has other big issues to tackle in closing Rikers, finishing a 300,000-unit housing plan and addressing transit problems, environmental advocates are hopeful he’ll increase his focus on making the city greener.
“Look, when you’re the mayor of the city of New York, you have to do a lot of things at the same time. The mayor was very clear about his top couple of issues when he came into office,” says Goldstein. “His compass on environmental issues is pointed in the right direction. What’s needed in the second term is personal engagement and concern, and a City Hall focus on execution.”