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While the struggle to implement meaningful climate action at a national level continues to falter, New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act has become a benchmark for what can be achieved within a single, albeit large, municipality. Aimed squarely at mitigating the emissions footprint of the city’s building stock, the 2019 act’s suite of local laws mandates green roofs, energy efficiency grades, clean energy financing, and, most importantly, compliance with ambitious decarbonization targets. With meaningful overtures to the city’s environmental justice and tenants’ movements, the act’s “centerpiece,” Local Law 97, also strives to address the unequal burdens of this significant carbon reduction effort.
But when this policy’s impacts stretch far beyond the five boroughs, how can New Yorkers reconcile the promise of a green transition with the environmental implications of so-called clean energy further afield? Below, Jack Rusk follows transmission cables from the shores of Astoria to the northern reaches of Canada, where vast hydro-power facilities are set to generate a great deal of the city’s future, low-carbon electricity. Here, ecosystems and Indigenous lifeways are threatened to supply the demands of an urban population which, itself, must contend with how energy and its costs — financial and social — are calculated and allocated. By looking at both ends of the line, Rusk shows how tenants in New York City and First Nations peoples in Quebec have more in common than might first appear, and how both could benefit from networks of support and solidarity matching the scale and distance of an emergent energy economy.
In 2012, a line on a map was drawn between Montreal, Canada, and Astoria, Queens. In 2021, this line became a trench. 48 inches deep, 30 inches wide, and nearly 340 miles long, this sinuous infrastructure project will eventually displace a volume of earth one and half times the size of the pencil tower at 432 Park Avenue in Manhattan. But when the project is completed in 2025, this refilled and replanted trench will become almost invisible. To New Yorkers, the infrastructure will be more present on spreadsheets than on the surface of the earth.
The twin electrical transmission lines at the bottom of the trench will plug Quebec’s hydropower directly into New York City’s electrical grid, giving the city a transfusion of clean energy it needs to meet its commitment to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050. The 1,250 megawatts of power traveling along the line — named the Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE) after both the lake from which it begins and the river in which it ends — isn’t a marginal contribution. Expected to meet around ten percent of peak electricity demand, the CHPE will become a major part of the city’s power grid.
The CHPE lowers the overall carbon emissions from electricity used in the city, like a rising tide that lifts all boats, and though climate change creates an ethical imperative to reduce these emissions, the CHPE also has clear economic implications. Starting in 2024, New York City’s Local Law 97 (LL97) will impose a penalty of $268 for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted by a property’s energy use. The CHPE is expected to save many building owners many millions of dollars in penalties each year. Beyond reducing liabilities for building owners, the CHPE is anticipated to bring everyone a little closer to the low-carbon future necessary to ward off the worst of the climate crisis. Everyone, at least, in New York.
At the other end of the line, there is a different story to be told. The clean power coming into New York via the CHPE has a more complicated provenance than carbon accounts make it seem. Hydroelectric dams generating this power in Quebec are largely sited on Indigenous lands and, in most cases, on lands never ceded by treaty. “So-called ‘clean’ power in New York City,” says Lucien Wabanonik, councilmember of the Anishinaabe de Lac Simon Nation, “is made possible by the theft of Indigenous land, damage to Indigenous culture, and degradation of Indigenous livelihoods.” As the CHPE saves building owners in the city tens of millions of dollars each year, New Yorkers haven’t yet considered what is owed to those in Quebec who bear the brunt of its negative impacts.
The collateral effects of New York City’s low-carbon power infrastructure on the Anishinaabe and other First Nations peoples in Québec are not a unique accident; instead, they raise fundamental questions about LL97 and New York City’s climate commitments. As the city attempts to shoulder responsibility for its role in the global climate crisis, some methods for reducing emissions within city limits only exacerbate the climate crisis elsewhere in the world. While the law gives careful consideration of equity among residents of New York City, it ignores the reality on the ground in northern Quebec. LL97 appears to throw these distant populations into conflict with one other, but that’s not the whole story — abstract carbon accounting can also engender unexpected solidarities.
New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act, which includes LL97, remains a uniquely ambitious piece of climate legislation, more notably for the context in which it emerged. When it passed in May 2019, the Trump administration was preparing the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and federal action on climate change seemed mainly focused on discrediting it altogether. The Climate Mobilization Act answered the call for “subnational actors” to take responsibility for emissions reductions, and LL97, the act’s crown jewel, lays out a clear strategy for reducing emissions from buildings specifically, the source of 70 percent of the city’s carbon emissions.
LL97 is considered exemplary, and for good reason. The law is finely tuned to take responsibility for the city’s emissions and, as much as possible, to protect New York’s tenants, especially the most vulnerable. Energy costs are traditionally allocated to tenants, who have little control over the efficiency of the buildings they are in. Notably, LL97 holds owners responsible for energy-related emissions from their buildings, and prevents these costs being passed on to tenants. Beyond attention to the power imbalance between landlords and tenants, the law is also unusual for acknowledging that not all buildings are alike. Rent-regulated and public housing buildings are given alternative pathways to compliance; instead of paying fines, their owners and managers are asked to take measures like, for instance, installing individual thermostats in each unit to reduce energy waste from overheating. Further, the law’s implementation is governed by an advisory board where the voices of business and building owners are balanced with required representation for environmental justice advocates, tenant representatives, and green energy experts.
One clear benefit of LL97 is that it incentivizes the elimination of fossil fuel consumption in buildings, which will dramatically improve air quality across the city. Buildings currently generate twice as much NOx (pronounced “knocks”— a family of pollutants that are respiratory irritants and contributors to acid rain) as all the passenger vehicles in New York. LL97 will encourage the electrification of older buildings, substituting plug-in appliance and mechanical systems for their natural gas or oil-burning equivalents, and the recent gas ban will require most future buildings to be all-electric. The New York City Housing Authority, whose properties are excluded from LL97’s fines, is also aiming for total electrification by 2050. Better air helps everyone, but these effects will be most keenly felt in areas — predominantly low-income communities of color — where poor air quality is a major contributor to respiratory illness. By concentrating investments in these areas, electrification can simultaneously support decarbonization and health equity.
Eliminating fossil fuel consumption is an unequivocal good, but too narrow a focus on carbon can also lead to strange outcomes. For instance, LL97 doesn’t explicitly require energy efficiency upgrades for all buildings, and might even disincentivize them: As projects like the CHPE lower emissions from electricity use, more electricity can be consumed while facing fewer penalties. But it’s also not so simple. LL97 will have heterogenous effects.
For commercial building owners, the strategy for avoiding fines is to bank on electrifying everything and decarbonizing the grid. This strategy dominates the national conversation around buildings and climate change. The best part of electrification, as far as building owners are concerned, is that it could eventually free them from any and all penalties levied by LL97. With a state-level commitment to a zero-carbon electrical grid by 2040 (made possible by infrastructure like the CHPE, as well as in-state solar and wind projects), all-electric buildings may have very little to pay in emissions fines regardless of how much energy they use. With 100 percent carbon-free energy, emissions (and associated fines) drop to zero, even as energy consumption stays the same or increases. This strategy, preferable to building owners, could put even more pressure on sites of energy extraction like Quebec, where resource colonialism has reappeared under a new and greener guise.
At the other end of the CHPE from New York City, braided rivers crisscross a glacier-carved landscape being rapidly transformed as narrow riverways balloon into massive reservoirs feeding hydroelectric dams. The Romaine, Quebec’s last wild and undammed river, was plugged with four dams in 2013. Inside these dams, the previously wild river is put to work, spinning turbines which turn rotors to generate low-carbon “clean” hydroelectricity for export to US or Canadian cities. These dams create more than just electricity; they also have massive ecological and social consequences.
Beyond flooding vast areas, Hydro-Québec’s dams prevent salmon from returning upstream to spawn, and stopper the flow of nutrient-rich sediment downstream. These dams flood vast areas: the Eastmain-1 dam, which (at capacity) could help produce about ten percent of New York’s energy, floods an area ten times the size of Manhattan. The land it floods is not empty, but is home to biodiverse and carbon-sequestering northern forests. The damage wrought by the dam is not only ecological. “Our culture,” insists Lucien Wabanonik, as he describes the linkages between indigenous foodways, sacred sites, and material resources across North Quebec, “is inseparable from the land being flooded by these dams.”
Sustained high levels of energy consumption have different, but significant costs, for New York City residents as well. Tenants, shielded by LL97 from the cost of carbon emissions, are still responsible for direct energy costs. A 2019 report identifies almost a half million households in the city to which these energy costs are an undue burden. Faced with rising costs and shrinking wages, New Yorkers are forced to make impossible decisions between paying for rent, for food, and for energy. Across New York State, utility debt totals over a billion dollars. When these bills go unpaid, utility shutoffs can leave tenants out cold.
Over time, the inevitable effects of current climate change will only exacerbate energy burden and its associated risks. Many tenants in the city aren’t responsible for heating costs, but the rising incidence of extreme heat events is increasing both summer cooling costs and heat-related illnesses. Between May and August of 2021, these illnesses sent over 600 New Yorkers to the emergency room. Each summer, there are over 100 deaths where heat stress is a major contributing factor. These risks are widely distributed but most keenly felt in low-income communities of color, where the lack of green and blue spaces lead to higher heat stress than other parts of the city. 70 percent of deaths by heat stress occurred at home and, of those, all occurred where people could not afford to buy an air conditioner or, if they had one, to turn it on. For tenants, reducing energy costs is vital for lowering their energy burden and preventing heat-related deaths.
The same 2019 report identifies two ways to lower energy costs for tenants: increase the energy efficiency of buildings, and provide direct community access to renewable energy. These goals, which fall outside the scope of LL97, are at the center of a groundswell of environmental justice organizing. Groups like WE ACT and Energy Efficiency for All are focused on reducing energy burdens by increasing efficiency through building retrofits and electrification. WE ACT has also spearheaded Solar Uptown Now!, which has installed over a dozen community solar arrays on multifamily affordable housing. These installations lower energy costs for residents, provide health and air quality benefits by displacing fossil fuel combustion, and lower dependence on energy interconnects like the CHPE.
Increasing energy efficiency in New York City buildings and installing small-scale solar arrays support energy equity in the city, but they also help address emergent, and further flung, inequities caused by the current decarbonization paradigm. Because they focus on reducing energy consumption, and thus energy imports, these strategies give the city’s tenants and environmental justice nonprofits ground for solidarity with the Indigenous people resisting dams in Quebec. Unexpected as it is, this sort of distant solidarity is not without precedent.
At the end of the 20th century, New York City’s water quality requirements led to an agreement that acknowledged the reciprocal relationship between the city and communities in the Catskills, the source of the its water. When the Catskill Forest Preserve was established in 1885, it was only 34,000 acres — roughly the size of the Bronx. Today, the preserve is over eight times larger: roughly the size of all five boroughs plus an additional area the size of Queens, providing the city with over 900 million gallons of water daily. But the project was not without a social cost. Filling the preserve’s 19 reservoirs flooded several small towns in the area — including one town ironically named Neversink — and displaced thousands of nearby residents. Some of these residents were compensated fairly for their land, but others were not, and hard feelings about the displacement are present to this day.
With these conflicts, though, came opportunities to redress the harms. A 1997 Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) signed by New York City representatives and a coalition of towns in the Catskills is lauded as a model agreement balancing ecosystem protection, water quality, and rural livelihoods. The success of the agreement was predicated on a lengthy process of deep listening, where both the city and Catskills residents laid out their concerns and sought common ground. Under the agreement, for instance, New York City now foots the bill for individual residents in the Catskills to perform costly upgrades to their septic systems — recognizing that their water quality downstream is linked to rural livelihoods upstream.
The 1997 MoA was also influenced by the proximity of the city and the Catskills, their economic connections, and shared identity as New Yorkers. Different, but equally powerful, connections exist between New York City tenants and First Nations communities in Quebec. These communities have, each in their own ways, borne the consequences of climate change’s effects. For a long time, each community has worked toward its goals in isolation from the other. Now, their fates are now intertwined by two 340-mile lengths of stranded copper wire at the bottom of a trench.
LL97 takes responsibility for the city’s emissions and, by doing so, sets an inspiring example of a city becoming accountable for its role in the global climate crisis. But accountability for emissions is not as abstract as the law’s carbon accounting makes it out to be. Global climate change is not a singular event — it’s a rising tide of interconnected but highly localized crises. The brunt of these crises is often borne by populations structurally disadvantaged by racist and colonialist legacies. Strategies to address the climate crisis should work to repair these harms, here as elsewhere.
A reckoning with New York City’s contribution to climate change isn’t just a numbers game, but also an opportunity to participate in the unexpected relationships these numbers precipitate. The struggles of those advocating for energy equity in New York align with those fighting for cultural survival in Quebec. Energy efficiency and community-owned renewable power here support Indigenous lifeways there, and vice versa. As power flows south from Quebec along the CHPE interconnect, solidarity between New Yorkers and First Nations people can flow in both directions. LL97 puts forward a groundbreaking framework for reducing carbon emissions from buildings, but it’s not enough. To bring about a just transition, where emissions reductions synergize with the repair of inequities in the city and beyond, carbon accounting must extend into new practices of accountability.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.