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NYC Climate Chief Ben Furnas discusses Greening the City’s Built Environment
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NYC Climate Chief Ben Furnas discusses Greening the City’s Built Environment

Mayors Office of Climate and Sustainability director Ben Furnas and The Real Deal's Hiten Samtani (Ben Furnas)
Mayors Office of Climate and Sustainability director Ben Furnas and The Real Deal's Hiten Samtani (Ben Furnas)

Mayors Office of Climate and Sustainability director Ben Furnas and The Real Deal’s Hiten Samtani

No matter if it’s a creative financing structure or a nine-figure sale of an apartment, New York City realty is a magnet for the world’s markets. According to the city’s climate czar, sustainability could be the same.

According to Ben Furnas (director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability) and architect of landmark green-building policies like Local Law 97, which establishes aggressive targets for reducing carbon emissions in larger buildings and a ban of gas in new buildings, New York City’s buildings can be a good example of climate-friendly real-estate development.

Furnas joined de Blasio’s administration in 2014 as a policy analyst. This is his last week at City Hall. He will not be joining Eric Adams.

Furnas sat down The Real DealFor a conversation about how New York’s built environments will be transformed by policies set by Bill de Blasio, he described his bosses as the most ambitious climate Mayor in America and why he believes that the Adams administration will continue the march towards a greener realty landscape.

How does the ban gas in new construction affect sustainability?

Deep decarbonization is about shifting away from fossil fuels. One important place to do this is in buildings. It is important to shift away from fossil fuels that contribute to climate change when we generate heat in our hot water heaters and boilers. It is important that the electricity source is becoming more clean, renewable, and zero-carbon. What? This lawWhat it really means is that the next generation in buildings in America’s realty capital, the richest country in human history, will be electric. This is a clear indication to the rest of the world that this is where the built environment is heading. We have a very diverse real estate industry, and we believe we can achieve it right here. The lessons we learn from this leap can be used around the globe.

What was the real estate industry’s reaction to the pushback? There has been concern that going electric might make development more costly and that electric heating may not prove as reliable for tenants.

The heat pump is the technology that we were interested in, and heat pumps can be found throughout East Asia and Scandinavia. They are an affordable solution to building all-electric, high efficiency buildings. As were trying to push an industry to spur innovation, it makes sense to set some deadlines and work toward better cost-competitiveness.

If New York City’s buildings can be a good example of climate-friendly real property development, then that is what people are looking for.

I found it very encouraging that there was a broad consensus that this was the direction the industry should go. Much of the discussion was about the timelines. What exemptions and differential treatment are available for certain types fossil-fuel usage? There are many developers who are creating all-electric buildings in all kinds of large and complex buildings. It was very useful to hear from them. Alloy Development is constructing a large all-electric building on Flatbush Avenue.

Hines is also working on all-electric structures. It was thrilling to see the industry’s cutting-edge being able educate us and our peers. Legislative processes are always down to the wire. If it gets a little contentious, that is a sign you know you are doing something important.

Is it possible that the majority of New York real estate is owned not only by large families but also by mom-and-pop businesses?

One thing is certain: The New York real estate market is [made up of]People who care deeply about New York City and its future. That can allow us to talk in decades and generations in a way few industries are used to. When we think about climate, this is the exact timeframe we should be considering. What will New York physically look like in 2050? In 2100? Will the coastline change? We must adapt the structures we built to last 100 years. They must not only be prepared for a changing environment but also minimize the negative consequences of such a climate.

It is good for New Yorkers that such structures are being built. It’s great that these developers get in the habit to build structures that major global corporations with carbon pledges will love to occupy. I would love for New York City’s building industry to be able to share its knowledge and expertise. If New York City’s buildings can be a model of climate-friendly realty development, that is something people are hungry to see.

How is it possible that real estate has escaped scrutiny for so many years?

People used to think of fossil fuels as the internal combustion engine underneath their cars for a long time. It is true that the internal combustion engine under our cars is a major source for greenhouse gas pollutants, accounting for about a third here in the five boroughs. But why is it only a third of our emissions? Because Most peopleTake an electric vehicle to work, the subway.

We have a built environment where people can live without a vehicle powered by fossil fuels. This compact urban living style was considered a model. We want to continue building buildings along subway lines. We want to expand mass transit. New York City has a stat that shows that approximately two-thirds (or more) of our emissions are from fossil fuels that are used to heat, cool, or power our buildings. It is slightly less visible when we refer to hot water heaters or boilers. It is not as stylish as an electric car. It can be difficult to renovate your home. It’s not like trading your Camry for the Tesla.

City governments have a lot of power. They have the ability to regulate and oversee the buildings within their communities. We created a plan called One City: Built to LastWe invested billions in our municipal facilities, and began the analysis that eventually led to the formation of Local Law 97.

Local Law 97, which I found to be a blunt instrument, penalizes density instead of incentivizes it. It was also fiercely contested, unlike the all-electric law. Do you think it could evolve into something more nuanced than that?

Let me clarify: There are seven use groups currently, and specific targets depending on the usage. The Department of Buildings is currently undergoing a process of more precise categorization in order to ensure that the targets people want to achieve are reasonable for their building’s uses. We should be pushing people. We should strive to be the best version of ourselves. However, we shouldn’t compare the activities in a law firm with those in an industrial process.

Decarbonization will be very difficult. It’s going to be a challenge for all of us. The law sets realistic but ambitious targets to reduce emissions so that we can achieve the deep decarbonization goals that we know are required.

The law is concerned with what we can measure and how important it is, which is carbon emissions associated to building operations and systems. Electricity drawn from the grid is one component. [another]Component is located in the furnaces and hot-water heaters.

It’s not easy to renovate your home. It’s not like trading your Camry for the Tesla.

We are investing in the grid, and we work closely with REBNY in order to catalyze new transmission investments. This will make solar and storage construction in the five boroughs easier than ever. These things make it easier to reach the targets set forth in Local Law 97.

We believe it is a huge opportunity for job creation. We are seeing a whole industry develop around Local Law 97. This is to help building owners understand their obligations and identify potential opportunities in their own buildings. We don’t leave people behind. We created new financing programs to allow investors to get low-interest loans for clean energy projects.

People talk about it as if someone is doing something wrong if they exceed their Local Law 97 targets. It’s not. It is a way to be clear-eyed about the challenge, what we all need to do together to reduce our emissions, and what building typologies and uses are required. As long as emissions are falling, we are open to all possibilities. It will be a combination of energy efficiency and switching to electric options from fossil-fuel combustion in many places.

New York City has been a pioneer in the creation of markets. There is a market for air rights. Would the city support a carbon trading market so that I, as a building owner can be incentivized into reducing my emissions even more than the required levels?

It is a complex task. Tokyo was the only municipality that has done anything even remotely similar. However, it had many, much, many more buildings. Although the complexity and difficulty of the vast arrays of buildings participating in Local Law 97 makes it difficult, it is an interesting idea.

This work is very appealing to people who can write checks and make them disappear. This is not an easy job and I am the first to admit that its difficult and time-consuming. It is something we were called upon to do as professionals.

This is your final week on the job. What would you rate Mayor de Blasio’s overall legacy in sustainability and the built environment.

It has been clear to me that Bill de Blasio, contrary to what you might think, is the most ambitious climate mayor currently in America. He believes that we must rapidly shift away from fossil fuels in all that we do, from our pensions to our buildings and electricity systems.

He has made a name for himself in the built environment. He stated that it was impossible to achieve deep emission reductions without addressing existing buildings. He was willing to risk his political capital to get there. [Local Law 97] done. We can see that these large investments are being made to improve efficiency across all five boroughs. This was a pivotal point in New York City’s emission reductions.

The law on electric buildings makes it clear that this is the direction we are going as the next generation builds. Local Law 97 is working to shift the built environment away from fossil fuels.

Another important accomplishment we just completed was This set of contractsNew York City will be powered with 100 percent renewable electricity. This purchase is the mayor’s way of saying that we are investing our money. It accomplishes two very important things. It makes it crystal clear that 100 percent of electricity used in our five boroughs by the city government, which accounts for around tenth, will be generated from renewable energy. It also stimulates the development these two new transmission lines. They are essentially the anchor tenant for these transmission lines. This means that they can obtain financing.

You are entering the market.

We were creating the market. We were creating a new reality. Two new transmission lines will be constructed, one in upstate New York and the other to tap into Canadian hydropower, wind power, and both will be used for market access. This will improve the air quality in five boroughs and also ensure that building owners who are subject to Local Law 97 obligations will have a cleaner grid. We weren’t relying solely on building owners to meet these Local Law 97 targets. They are also supported by the city.

The way Americans think about climate change has changed dramatically since the dawn of American capitalism.

We tend to think of each of these things as separate entities, but if we look back, our goal is to reduce carbon emissions. While we recognized that some of the responsibility might be at the building level; however, a lot must be at grid and system level.

Are you a fan of the mayor’s shenanigans? A convoy of SUVs to the gymPark Slope has no such legacy.

I would like to believe that with a little time and space, people will be able to look back and see the material improvements, and individual activities will fade into history. For many years, I have been noting this. [the mayors vehicle]This has been an All-electric Pacifica. It is not a fossil fuel SUV. [laughs]

Do you have a dialogue about these policies with the trade unions? There are opportunities, but there is also some fear and anxiety around obsolescence.

Absolutely. We’re talking about changing how we build. The current structure of trades is designed to reflect this way of building. We want all the work to be done by unionized workers, with lots of opportunities for new workers. How that work will be allocated thoughtfully, so it is not a zero-sum dynamic in which you take away work from one trade and shift it to another. The leadership of [Building and Construction Trades Council]This was a project that he was very involved in.

Much of what we’ve discussed is about using existing technologies and crafting legislation that will ensure that we are responsible for our emissions. We will also need to invest in new tech. What role has the City played in encouraging innovation

This can be divided into two groups. One, I believe there is an enthusiasm and interest in blue sky ideas, helping companies with laboratory space, or a series for entrepreneurs to think about new solutions.

These are often compared and contrasted, such as “Are you deploying?” or “Are you doing R&D?” These things are interconnected to me. The best kind of R&D is done through deployment. This means that you take the technology and start to install it. You see what challenges arise and what opportunities you might have to iterate on it.

It’s a positive feedback mechanism. This is why it’s important to have targets that are specific to building technologies. However, if a new technology is introduced knowing that there is a pre-existing market for electrified building technologies. It helps entrepreneurs and researchers see the potential market. We see the legislative role of setting goals and holding people accountable to high standards as part and parcel in creating that dynamic ecosystem.

Many of the ideas you have been working on for many years are now just starting to come to fruition. Stay on and see how they work out in the Adams administration.

It has been eight wonderful years. It’s been the best experience of my entire life. I have had some wonderful conversations with the Adams staff. I think that a lot this work is in very good hands. There are passionate people joining the City Council who care deeply regarding climate change.

Eric Adams has made it clear he will be an Anonymizer Mayor of New York is unabashedly probusiness. Are you concerned that this attitude could lead your office to take initiatives that are counter to what you have achieved?

When we think of the great companies and new companies of the 21st Century, many of them will be in the business to transform energy systems, electrify buildings, and drastically reduce our contribution to climate change. At the height of American capitalism, there has been a major shift in the way businesses and individuals think about climate change. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs are involved in finding climate solutions. New York City must be at forefront of climate solutions if it wants to be a hub of global capitalism and big businesses. All the things we talked about about the next generation structures, the next level of urban living, and thinking about how to make New York City a vibrant, livable place that attracts talent from all over the globe, as New York City has always been, I believe that this is completely consistent. In fact, you will probably need to be in a place where climate action is taking place.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

(Write To Hiten at [email protected]Or @hitsamty Twitter. Click here to see more of The REInterview. It’s a series of in-depth conversations with newsmakers and real estate leaders.

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