New York City is on the verge of enacting one of the most ambitious citywide building energy efficiency laws in the country, aimed at getting its biggest buildings — including landmarks like the Empire State Building and Trump Tower — to shave their carbon emissions footprint by 40 percent by 2030 or face financial penalties. 

Backers of the bill say it’s an important step to help meet New York state’s broader climate change goals, and could pave the way for similar efforts in cities across the country

But opponents, including New York City real estate firms, say the bill could place overly costly and potentially impossible energy-reduction demands on the city’s biggest buildings, while exempting too many older and less-efficient buildings to be effective. 

The law is part of a broader package called the Climate Mobilization Act, which was passed by a City Council committee on Thursday. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the legislation into law on Monday. 

First in the country

The new energy efficiency requirements for buildings over 25,000 square feet are at the heart of this climate-reduction package, given these structures' outsize role in the city’s energy consumption. Buildings of this size make up less than 2 percent of the city’s real estate, but account for roughly half of its energy use, and thus the city’s share of carbon emissions. 

That’s made them a target of previous city building energy and carbon emissions efforts. New York City has already instituted building standards, known as the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, that include a series of efficiency and data-collection requirements for buildings of this size, including annual benchmarking of their electricity and water consumption, periodic energy audits and retro-commissioning, and a requirement to undergo lighting and sub-metering upgrades by 2025. 

But the new law would be the first of any city in the country to set specific emissions limits on large buildings, coupled with financial penalties for failing to comply, imposed through the newly created Office of Building Energy Performance.

Property owners have complained that the bill’s exemptions — it excludes houses of worship, rent-regulated apartments and low-income housing, and other categories of buildings — will leave too much burden on the remaining building owners to cut energy usage. 

But the bill’s backers say it’s an important first step toward tackling a massive challenge for any city or state seeking to reduce their carbon emissions from the built environment. Buildings make up about 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption, according to the Energy Information Administration. 

Retrofits, carbon trading on the table

New York state is engaged in its own "Green New Deal" push to reduce fossil fuel consumption and attain a zero-carbon energy mix by 2040, which will help the city’s biggest buildings meet their goals by reducing the carbon intensity of the electricity they use.

In the meantime, however, while most buildings don’t have much control over the carbon profile of the electricity they consume beyond installing solar panels or other clean generation, making them more efficient with the energy they do use will be a critical piece of any broader carbon-reduction scheme.

"Buildings will have to do deep energy retrofits, buy green power or eventually look at carbon trading,” John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council, a backer of the legislation, told Crain’s New York Business. “We get that it's tough and that billions of dollars will need to be spent to reduce carbon emissions. But new technology and new business models will be invented to help buildings get there."

Other bills that make up the Climate Mobilization Act package include a property-assessed clean energy financing program to help find renewable energy or building energy efficiency improvements.

It also includes a bill that would direct the city to study whether it could close 21 natural-gas-fired power plants within its borders and replace them with renewable energy and energy storage, and a bill to require certain buildings to cover their roofs in solar panels, small wind turbines or “green roof” gardens.