Who says climate policy is hard? Not this city and state.

Rory Christian

This blog post was co-authored by Abbey Brown, an EDF project coordinator.

Thousands of climate activists have now descended on New York City for Climate Week and the United Nation’s Climate Summit to try to forge international agreements on carbon pricing and other weighty matters.

Of course, all they need to do is gaze down Manhattan’s First Avenue, or a little ways upstate, to see some unique and successful ways to tackle thorny environmental challenges.

As former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now the U.N. special envoy for cities and climate change, has said, “Cities have the capacity and will to meet this challenge.”

His sense of empowerment extends to the state, whose governor has proclaimed that New York will “lead on climate change.”

As government officials and leaders from the civil society and business world spend hours in hotel conference rooms negotiating complex policies to cut carbon emissions this week, local and state governments are already hard at work, implementing emission reduction policies for which they can no longer afford to wait. 

New York City has cleanest air in 50 years

Wonder how to reduce soot, or black carbon, and energy consumption in city buildings around the world? Leaders at the U.N. Climate Summit should look no further than the Big Apple, which is on a mission to clean the air and cut greenhouse gas pollution.

NYC Clean Heat – a coalition of city officials, non-profits, and private sector banks led by Environmental Defense Fund – launched a $100-million financing program in 2012 to help building owners replace dirty heating oils with cleaner fuels such as natural gas or biodiesel.

The result: More than 4,000 buildings, half of them affordable housing, slashed sulfur-dioxide pollution by 70 percent. Not since the early 1960s has the city air been this clean.

Building on the NYC Clean Heat success, Mayor Bill de Blasio just announced a “retrofit accelerator” program to upgrade 20,000 private buildings with new energy-efficiency features – an initiative that will cover three-quarters of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. New York City is the largest city in the world to commit to an 80-percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Anybody who thinks there’s a lesson here for another big city with a soot problem can contact Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office for details. Because this city gets it.

New York State paves the way for clean energy

Earlier this year, meanwhile, New York State began an unprecedented process of overhauling its longstanding electricity system. As part of this effort, the state will convert its century-old grid to an intelligent, efficient network that smoothly integrates vastly increased amounts of renewable energy.

As part of this reform, New York State regulators have assembled a broad coalition similar to the one that made NYC Clean Heat possible. They know their efforts will only be successful if the parties involved, including Environmental Defense Fund, all have a stake and a say.

There could be some lessons here, too, that delegates to the September 23 U.N. Climate Summit may want to take home when the one-day conference concludes.

Of course, nobody’s perfect and New York had to learn the hard way that climate action cannot wait.

Driving these local and state initiatives is an acute sense of vulnerability. New York doesn’t need another Superstorm Sandy any more than Sacramento needs another drought.

There’s also accountability. Mayors and governors are close to the ground, they see what’s going on, they hear from constituents and they know they must act before it’s too late.

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