“About 70 percent of New York City’s climate-heating pollution comes from energy use in buildings, with the majority of that pollution coming from large buildings covered by Local Law 97.”

Adi Talwar

Skyscrapers in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards neighborhood.

As we write, thousands of people are missing and presumed dead in Libya due to a dam collapse during a massive downpour. Another climate disaster killing poor people of color. One of us, Rachel, lost everything in Hurricane Sandy and a close family friend in Puerto Rico drowned during hurricane Maria. Every New Yorker, like us, had trouble breathing when the skies turned orange this summer from wildfires.

As bad as it already is with just a 1.1 Celsius degree increase in temperature, we know that the current heat increases and weather extremes are nothing compared to what will happen if powerful people like Mayor Eric Adams don’t pass and enforce policies to make polluters reduce fossil fuel use.

The good news is that getting off fossil fuels is an incredible opportunity to create good jobs. It also enables us to get out of the shackles of the oil and gas companies, who overcharge working New Yorkers for energy. We need a transformation now, to maximize energy efficiency and move to wind and solar power.

Yet instead of stepping up, Mayor Adams has proposed taking New York City backwards by rolling back New York’s landmark climate and jobs law, Local Law 97. 

About 70 percent of New York City’s climate-heating pollution comes from energy use in buildings, with the majority of that pollution coming from large buildings covered by Local Law 97. The law is the first law of its kind worldwide to set specific, enforceable limits on pollution from buildings that match the emissions reductions needed to prevent global catastrophe. It cuts pollution from the city’s top source of emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and over 80 percent by 2050.

Four years after it passed in 2019, Local Law 97 is still the most consequential municipal climate and jobs legislation in the world. It is currently on track to create tens of thousands of jobs in design, renovation, and construction from slashing pollution through upgrading buildings to high energy efficiency.

This groundbreaking piece of legislation is proving to be successful faster than its drafters anticipated, with buildings slashing their pollution well before the law’s initial 2024 pollution cap. When it passed, 20 percent of buildings were so polluting they were above the law’s initial 2024 limits. In recently available 2022 summary data, about half those buildings had gotten below that cap, a full two years “ahead” of schedule.

Over time, gone will be the infamous New York City dilemma when it’s so hot in the winter, one has to crack a window open to cool it down–almost literally venting money out the window. Energy waste will become a thing of the past.

Yet since the law’s inception, which it tried to stop, the real estate lobby has drawn upon its war chest of dollars in campaigns, attempting to fearmonger about the law with claims that it is unaffordable and unachievable. Here’s the reality the real estate lobby doesn’t want to acknowledge: Responsible building owners are already complying or well on their way to complying.

Now, Mayor Adams has proposed to roll the law back, breaking the trust with New Yorkers and our communities to lead our city forward. Specifically, the mayor has proposed rules using executive agency discretion that would let landlords delay the law’s first pollution limits, which start in 2024, by two years. He is also proposing to allow a massive corporate “buyout” loophole for landlords to use instead of upgrading their buildings to high energy efficiency to cut energy waste and pollution.

If the mayor’s proposed rules are turned into final regulations, it will be a major blow for our fight against climate change and the city’s economic development. If finalized as proposed, New Yorkers could lose tens of thousands of jobs, air pollution could increase by millions of tons per year, and energy bills could get even higher as building owners conclude they can avoid the hands-on work of upgrading buildings. It’s a signal that under Mayor Adams, they could get a get out of jail free card.

It’s ironic to us that the mayor wants to allow landlords to further delay complying with a law by two more years after they had five years to prepare. In our lives and jobs, nobody said to us that if we failed to follow a law or a work requirement that we had years to prepare for, we could get another two years, and no problem. That’s not how life for working New Yorkers goes.

And the buy-out loophole? Building owners would be able to take the equivalent of some change from their couch cushions to pay to get out of upgrading their buildings to reduce pollution.

We know the mayor’s quick to break up encampments of homeless people, send police into subway stations to ticket turnstile jumpers who can’t afford to pay, and punish street vendors trying to make a living. We don’t agree with those actions, and we do not agree with our elected officials siding with rich people and real estate interests who finance his campaign.

We were part of the grassroots campaign that won enactment of Local Law 97, which united multiracial communities across the city who saw an opportunity to reduce pollution and create large numbers of good jobs to solve the climate crisis. The last mayor and City Council had their flaws, but they united to pass the world’s most-important city-level climate and jobs law.

Mayor Adams says he is “getting Local Law 97 done,” a play on his “get stuff done” slogan. In this case, he’s getting stuff done for the real estate interests. He should reconsider whose side to take, the people of New York’s or the real estate interests, and withdraw these two provisions in this draft rules for Local Law 97.

Rachel Rivera is a Hurricane Sandy survivor, mother of six, and climate leader with New York Communities for Change. Norman Fraizer is a board member of New York Communities for Change.