As we worked to finish our annual environmental issue, nearly 400,000 people marched through Midtown Manhattan to demand political action to address climate change. It was the largest gathering ever dedicated to the issue. Thousands of additional events took place around the world to echo the message that decisive action on climate change is urgently needed. Attending the march, the atmosphere was festive and empowering. The sense was that change is not only possible, but that it is long overdue. For New Yorkers the issue has become personal. The memories of Hurricane Sandy remain fresh in our minds.
Over the course of his administration, President Obama has announced strong new regulations for power plants, raised mileage standards for cars and trucks, and invested in alternative energy through the Recovery Act. In mid September, the administration announced steep voluntary cuts in hydrofluorocarbons—mostly used in air conditioning and refrigeration—by working with large corporations. He has arguably done more to address climate change than any other president, all in the face of an obstructionist Congress and the Republicans’ cynical, anti-science agenda. And yet these measures are not nearly enough to curb our emissions, let alone compensate for rising emission rates in the developing world.
A recent study suggests that drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not only possible, but will save money in the long run. According to the New Climate Economy Report 2014, “the structural and technological changes unfolding in the global economy, combined with multiple opportunities to improve economic efficiency, now make it possible to achieve better growth and better climate outcomes.
The report puts urbanization at the center of the fight to reduce emissions. The sprawling development pattern in the U.S. wastes money and resources, according to the report: “New modeling for this report shows that the incremental external costs of sprawl are about $400 billion per year, due to increased costs of providing public services, higher capital requirements for infrastructure, lower overall resource productivity, and accident and pollution.” Addressing sprawl will be the first line of offense in reversing our outsized emissions in an economically viable way.
Climate change is one area where the architecture/design/urbanism communities have taken the lead. The professions can and must do much more. In already dense areas, like New York, improving the efficiency of our buildings has the greatest potential to reduce our already modest (by U.S. standards) emissions. On the day of the People’s Climate March, Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to cut the city’s emissions by 80 percent over 2005 levels by 2050. Nearly three quarters of the city’s greenhouse gases can be traced to its buildings. As a first step, the mayor created a plan to upgrade 3,000 city owned buildings, and pledged to work with the private sector in incentivize efficiency upgrades. Though these upgrades will come with upfront costs, the city estimates a savings of $1.4 billion in energy costs by 2025.
The New York Chapter has quickly moved to embrace the Mayor’s plan, releasing the following statement: “The American Institute of Architects New York Chapter (AIANY) commends the mayor’s pledge to drastically reduce the City’s greenhouse gas emissions by focusing on building design. AIANY has long advocated for local laws and code changes that support energy conservation. Upgrades to public buildings, including housing, that concentrate on renewable energy sources and innovative design solutions, will benefit all New York City residents and set a powerful example for the private sector and the rest of the world. New York’s architects stand ready to help carry out this work.”
We couldn’t agree more.