Opinion | Can New York City Become the World’s Greenest City Without Becoming More Unaffordable?

Of course, not all sticks are equally stiff. Some are flexible. For example, allowing buildings to trade carbon reductions with one another would be a good way to cut costs while cutting carbon. Buildings that reduce their emissions below their caps could even make money by selling credits for those cuts to other buildings whose emissions reductions are more expensive. A study released by New York University in 2021 found carbon trading would lead to deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and lower the cost of complying with the law.

Such a carbon trading program, which would most likely require approval by the mayor and City Council, must not be confused with what the city is proposing: using renewable energy credits to comply with the law. Buildings would obtain these credits by buying their electricity from sources that generate renewable energy, like solar or wind or hydropower. The credits would allow the buildings to deduct emissions from their overall emissions. But if buildings are allowed to buy too many credits, often at prices we calculate at well under $10 per ton, it would render the law toothless. The advisory board is recommending a cap of 30 percent of a building’s excess emissions. Instead the city should look to more creative solutions to provide more carrots for complying with the law.

The Inflation Reduction Act can help, a lot. It behooves New York City and the state to get their administrative acts together quickly to be ready to help homeowners take advantage of the many federal refunds for everything from heat pumps to induction stoves and for the insulation and electric wiring to make both work. Federal subsidies are important, but they, too, have real limits. In general, they are more designed to help those in single-family homes in the suburbs than urban apartment dwellers. Renters, for example, are almost entirely left out of the equation. They have little say other than to plead with their landlords to remove the gas stoves, which may be responsible for one-eighth of childhood asthma cases.

Fortunately for New York, there is another major carrot it could deploy. The city has a famously convoluted property tax system in sore need of reform. It wouldn’t be the first time a seemingly intractable problem gets solved by linking it to another problem in need of a solution. The city should reduce the tax burden of any large building that takes on an emissions reduction project.

Paul’s building in the Financial District has a monthly maintenance bill that is more than 50 percent taxes. While the building got support from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for a boiler upgrade, the residents took the hit on the redo of the ancient central air-conditioning. It’s hard to imagine the co-op board approving another massive maintenance hike to meet emissions limits down the road without some corresponding incentives, like a cut in property taxes.

But wouldn’t the city’s tax base wither if the bulk of its buildings sought this kind of relief? After all, property taxes account for around a third of New York City’s $100 billion annual budget. The fact is, greener buildings are more valuable, in turn leading to higher property tax revenues. So as taxpayers invest money to make buildings greener, the city becomes richer, and everyone eventually is made whole, and then some. Greener buildings provide ample benefits to society overall, for example by making for healthier residents. Healthier residents mean fewer sick New Yorkers and thus lower costs for the city’s Health Department and its public hospitals. Equally important, people want to live in greener places.

The economy will benefit directly in another crucial way: by subsidizing the expansion of New York City-based trade schools that train local carpenters, electricians and future contractors in the ins and outs of net-zero building techniques. Technical schools really could be pathways to creating the work force we need for a greener future. By one count, meeting emissions goals through retrofits alone could create over 140,000 jobs in the New York metro region by 2030.

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