Environmental impacts fall on everyday New Yorkers

Mark Chambers, Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.
Mark Chambers, Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.
New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability
Mark Chambers, Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

Environmental impacts fall on everyday New Yorkers

A Q&A with Mark Chambers on congestion pricing, plastic bags and power generation
April 16, 2019

New Yorkers are being asked to bear more and more of the everyday impacts of environmental policy. Driving into Manhattan will soon become more expensive with congestion pricing. Plastic bags and plastic straws may be a thing of the past. And next time you order chicken and rice, it may come in cardboard rather than Styrofoam.

Mark Chambers is the man in the middle of it all, directing the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. The former architect talked to City & State about asking consumers to do more, visualizing how the city could close its power plants and convincing landlords to reduce building emissions.

Do you consider congestion pricing to be an environmental policy or just a transportation policy? Should it be priced in a way to maximize the positive environmental impacts?

We’re at a time when you can’t disaggregate the two. Ultimately, we want less cars on the road, and we want those cars, as much as possible, to be electrified and shared. Looking at it as simply an environmental policy that can ultimately move people away from vehicles into mass transit and less carbon-intensive transportation is true, and it’s great. But we want there to actually be better management of the existing streets and roadways that impact how we move around the city. The problem is that they’ve often been looked at as separate entities. And when we’re trying to do something as holistic as hang out as a species a little bit longer, we have to be a little bit more inclusive of both of those ideologies in the same policy.

Albany also passed a plastic bag ban and an optional paper bag fee. Is the language in the budget what the city had been looking for all this time?

The city was very clear about what it was looking for. We actually passed legislation to do this quite some time ago (the mayor signed a 5-cent plastic bag fee in 2016). We have been eagerly waiting for the state to act, and we’re excited that now something can happen. I can deep-dive into how pernicious single-use plastics are in terms of not just our city, but globally. The impact, not just from a litter standpoint, but from our waterways and our overall reliance on the fossil fuels that help create it, we have to be able to act on this.

I’m glad that the state is on board, and I’m happy to see this implemented in whatever manner works best. We have to move away from our current status quo around single-use bags.

I assume the city will opt in to the paper bag fee?

The City Council introduced a new (bill) that would move for a 5-cent fee on bags, so we’re excited to see how that actually works through the council process and what else happens and working with them to come up with something that works.

Albany banned plastic bags, the city just officially implemented “Meatless Mondays” at all schools – it’s a lot of consumer-focused environmental policies. Is this the right way to focus on greenhouse gas emissions, or should the focus be on major producers, like corporations?

Both and then some. A number of peer-reviewed national and international reports have come out in recent months that explain how dire a situation we’re encountering. We have to walk and chew gum. So yes, we have to focus on the large-scale energy sourcing and transmission of that energy into the city, absolutely. But we also have to change the way we live. Fundamentally, we have to change the way we consume. And I don’t think that it should just be considered low-hanging fruit for us to be able to provide as many options as possible for people to choose decisions that have less of an environmental impact in aggregate. We’re excited to embrace both of those, but also we’re not shying away from the extent to which meat-intensive diets do have a large global impact from the level of greenhouse gases that are emitted from that livestock sector.

The City Council is considering a bill that would study closing power plants within the city. How’s the mayor’s office feeling? Is that feasible?

The power needs to be replaced with things. You can’t just switch one off and then not have anything else. We are extremely focused on looking for and advocating for being able to use all the levers we have at our disposal for large-scale renewable power to be transmitted directly into the city. Whether it’s coming from upstate or offshore, those are the levers that allow for the in-city generation to actually be closed. Currently, 80% of our peak energy demand has to be maintained by in-city power generation. That can only be offset with larger renewables directly connected from outside the city. The way the grid operates is very resistant to shocks, in some ways. So we’re excited to have that conversation. But extremely excited to have a conversation about how do we get those renewables connected directly into the city, and how do we do that as quickly as possible?

You used to work as an architect, which is more relevant when you consider that two-thirds of citywide greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. Ahead of Earth Day, the City Council is expected to pass a bill to reduce those emissions. What’s the status of those discussions?

In reference to my background, it’s not just about the fact that I understand how buildings are put together. The architecture skill set is one of three-dimensional problem-solving. So I’m always happy to be an architect in a room to pull apart and dissect the unique pieces that come together for our built environment. I think that’s when it matters, when you’re intersecting with transportation and these large-scale infrastructure components.

We are feeling very optimistic that stakeholders, the City Council and the city at large are on board. This is the time to make something happen, and this is the time when the city is going to redefine the future of its built environment and set an example not just across the U.S., but for other cities as well. This is a defining moment.

People are always shocked to learn there are over a million buildings in New York City. You have to appreciate that scale to be able to appreciate how important it is for us to look at existing buildings and look at them in a way that is intentional about meeting building owners and tenants where they are, and helping them to be able to retrofit their buildings. Simultaneously, with a mandate, we’re also pushing for the passage of PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing, which will allow all of these building owners to take out low interest, long-term loans and pay them back through their property taxes. It presents a financing mechanism that allows for building owners to make these upfront capital investments without having to have the upfront capital to do so. And it stays with the property, even if it transfers ownership, so it’s a great way to help a lot of buildings owners to be able to actually get started on the retrofits quickly so they can actually benefit from them, and so can their tenants.

The Williams Cos. natural gas pipeline is proposed to run across New York Harbor and the Rockaway Peninsula. Is the city able to reduce gas demand, or does the pipeline have to be approved to meet demand in the short term?

It is important to understand that we do have a mandate to keep New Yorkers warm, keep New Yorkers safe. And that’s where a lot of the reliance on natural gas is. (But) this is a state and federal decision. So the city is eagerly watching the decision and being very active with the state Public Service Commission to express what the needs are for the city. As I said before, we’re extremely focused on transmission coming through the city and making sure we are looking at what are the alternatives.

We’ve been clear around the need for there to be a long-term transition away from fossil fuels. And we’re very interested to see what the state and federal government ultimately decide on this particular portion of the infrastructure.

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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