State to Developers: Mind Climate Change!

l brown 1 State to Developers: Mind Climate Change! As environmental advocates and climate change wonks are often quick to note, the vast majority of carbon dioxide emissions created in New York City do not come from cars, trucks or buses. Rather, some 77 percent of the city’s carbon emissions comes from its buildings, in the form of the energy spent to keep them cool, warm and electrified, releasing an estimated 47 million metric tons annually into the air.

Now, as “green design” cements its place in the lexicon, the Paterson administration is launching new requirements that would help thrust issues of greenhouse gases and climate change into the ever-contentious debate over large-scale real estate development in New York.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, led by a former Upper East Side assemblyman, Pete Grannis, is moving to require landlords and others planning very large-scale developments to account for impacts on climate change. Two new DEC policies, when introduced, would have developers of certain projects estimate the level of greenhouse gases their developments would create, quantifying those emissions in a required environmental review.

“Our commissioner, Pete Grannis, and the governor, too, are really taking climate change seriously, and we’re trying to integrate climate change into everything we do,” said Anne Reynolds, director of the DEC’s policy office. “At a basic level, it’s to try to encourage project proponents and public agencies to think about these issues as they’re making these decisions, so that they have additional information.”

The agency hopes to formally institute the new policies and regulations, including dimensions, by the summer, Ms. Reynolds said.

The move seems to be a characteristic act for Mr. Grannis’ agency. He is a longtime environmental champion, and under his leadership, the DEC has developed a reputation among many in government as an agency with an activist-inspired approach to environmental policy, and one that favors far stronger regulation than in the past. His actions have earned high marks from environmentalists, but also have frustrated those who are being regulated.

The fueling theory behind the action is that transparency on greenhouse gases will bring the issue into public conversations and approvals, giving agencies and communities the ability both to see a project’s projected emissions, and to urge or demand that it become more efficient. The emissions estimates would be part of the exhaustive environmental impact statements that developers of large-scale projects are typically required to complete.

Those documents estimate a project’s impact on everything from shadows to traffic to socioeconomic conditions. While there are generally not limits on a project’s impact in the various categories, when a major adverse one is found, developers are often pushed to offer a carrot, such as improved public transit or affordable housing.

 

IN AND OF THEMSELVES, the new policies would not be very far-reaching. Should the DEC go forward with a regulation change to its “Environmental Assessment Form,” as it is planning, the new rules would only apply to the relatively few projects for which the DEC is the lead agency. But, as Ms. Reynolds said, other agencies throughout the state very frequently use regulations set by the DEC, readying the stage for carbon emissions to be considered in projects throughout New York.

Indeed, the Bloomberg administration, which has battled with Mr. Grannis’ DEC in the past on what it perceived as unnecessarily rigid regulation, seems to approve of the general concept. In response to a draft of the new policies this fall, Robert Kulikowski, director of the city’s Office of Environmental Coordination, wrote that the Bloomberg administration “applauds” the DEC for “acknowledging the importance of examining the potential impact of greenhouse gas emissions.”

But the city, which is looking at modifying its own environmental review guidelines, went further. On top of looking at a project’s effects on global warming, the city urged the converse: a look at global warming’s effects on a project. The state’s draft regulation changes called for this consideration on only select projects. Presumably this would provide warnings about the perils of development in low-lying areas, given rising sea levels—two weeks ago, the city’s Climate Change Adaptation Task Force reported that the ocean could rise between 12 and 23 inches by the end of the century.

Climate change’s potential impacts are “of particular importance in New York City since much critical infrastructure and new development are located at the waterfront,” Mr. Kulikowski wrote.

The DEC’s moves come as a bevy of climate-change-related rules and regulations for buildings, infrastructure and development loom. The city has a task force on “green codes” that seeks to recommend a series of changes to the building code and other construction regulations. And the Climate Change Adaptation Task Force is charged with crafting a plan to mitigate climate change’s impacts on infrastructure.

Much of this would likely mean more regulations, and given the real estate industry’s general aversion to additional rules, especially in this tougher economy, it’s easy to see that there would be some distaste among developers about disclosing greenhouse-gas emissions. Already, the environmental review process is seen as especially burdensome; for large projects, the final environmental impact document can be thousands of pages long. All of that work for a document that generally does not have teeth: It only requires developers to discuss ways to mitigate environmental impacts; it does not require them actually to carry them out.

“Basically, it’s always about disclosure, and not actually about mitigation,” said Hope Cohen, a scholar at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute. “My view is, the more you pile on things you have to disclose, and yet not require any mitigation, only disclosure, the more burdensome and silly everything is.”

Still, backers of the DEC measure say the amount of extra work required to account for climate change would be marginal, and it would follow the lead of a few other states that have begun to install similar regulations.

“If you’re already doing an EIS, a greenhouse gas analysis should only be a small amount of additional work,” said Michael Gerrard, an environmental attorney and the new director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

ebrown@observer.com