A Shockingly Simple Blueprint for Big Cities To Slash Their Emissions

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Feb. 13 2013 4:06 PM

The Triple-Pane Windows Theory

A shockingly simple blueprint for big cities to save the planet without wrecking the economy.

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It’s in service of this goal that the report makes one of the few suggestions that might raise New Yorkers’ hackles from a quality-of-life perspective: capping the percentage of see-through glass on high-rise buildings at 50 percent. That means that some would lose their perfect, unobstructed views. That’s in conflict with the city’s current development trends, says Dick Leigh, the Urban Green Council’s director of research. “People want buildings with huge expanses of glass. But no matter how good the glass is, it’s not going to be as good as an insulated wall.”

Why do insulation and air flow matter so much? Because without it, the city’s big transition from steam to heat pumps would drastically increase the load on the electrical grid, bringing huge additional costs. With it, the Urban Green Council believes the switchover could be accomplished with only a modest impact on total electricity consumption.

Even with all those changes to its buildings, the city would still need serious cuts in its emissions from transportation and waste to reach the grail of 90 percent by 2050. It’s not an easy number, no matter how it’s sliced. But Leigh notes that the transportation sector, which accounts for 21 percent of the city’s emissions today, may not be as hard a nut in New York City as it is elsewhere in the country. The city is already built for people without cars—fewer than half of New York households have one. That means that some relatively reasonable expansions and electrification projects could go a long way. Converting city buses to electric trolleys, as San Francisco has done, would also help.

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All told, the council estimates that the measures in its report could get the city to the 90 percent target by 2050 at a cost on the order of $167 billion in 2012 dollars. That works out to about $5 billion per year, or about 0.4 percent of its gross municipal product. It sounds prohibitive, but the report also anticipates savings of $148 billion, which would reduce the net price tag to something more like $20 billion. The cleanup from Hurricane Sandy, meanwhile, is estimated to cost $50 billion.

It’s hard to believe these numbers are accurate. The cost of big infrastructure changes almost always soars far beyond projections. The report itself acknowledges that “there is something quixotic about estimating costs for a project that extends at least 37 years into the future.” Nor is it a sure thing that a 90 percent reduction in emissions would result even if all the recommendations are implemented.

But Unger, the council’s executive director, emphasizes that the report is not meant to be a precise blueprint. It doesn’t take into account political obstacles and makes no effort to identify specific policy options or funding sources. Instead, he says:

What we were trying to do here is address the almost despair that you see now among people who are concerned about global climate change. There’s been so much emphasis on legislation nationally and on international agreements. As those have fallen through, I think the worry has been, “Is there an alternative?” So what we wanted to study was, taking the goals we’ve heard, is this even doable? From a technical perspective, the answer we got was “yes.”

No doubt the “90 by 2050” mark is a long shot for New York, let alone the country as a whole. Yet at a time when big policy ideas like a carbon tax seem out of reach, the report makes a convincing case that it’s worth aiming high anyway, starting in the biggest cities, with technologies that are already available. In a rapidly urbanizing world, what works in New York might work a lot of other places, too. And if the worst-case scenario for tackling climate change is spending billions of dollars, missing the emissions target, and having a slightly less dazzling view from the top of the city’s luxury condos, well, that seems a lot more tolerable than the worst-case scenario for not tackling climate change.

Correction, Feb. 14, 2013: A home page headline for this article originally summarized the report as a way for New York to cut "energy use" by 90 percent.

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