Student Viewpoint: New York’s Climate Laws Require Columbia to Decrease Emissions, Too

By Arianna Menzelos

Columbia University–a multi-campus institution of over 44,000 employees, residents, and students–has significant impact on New York’s carbon footprint as well as on national leadership in sustainability. As one of the largest private landowners in the City of New York, Columbia’s institutional decisions directly impact local and regional emissions levels. Two recent legislative developments–the City’s Local Law 97 and the State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act–have the potential to profoundly implicate Columbia’s facilities and sustainability planning. Local Law 97 provides mandates that govern building emissions in New York and has explicit implications for campus infrastructure alterations. In contrast, as the specific requirements of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act will not be clear until an implementation plan is issued in two years. Both laws will eventually require the campus to lower its carbon footprint. As a leader in climate research and education, Columbia should not only follow but also embrace the goals of these landmark pieces of environmental legislation.

On May 18, 2019, the New York City Council passed Local Law 97 of 2019 (LL97), popularly known as the “retrofit bill,” as part of its larger Climate Mobilization Act. LL97 declares ambitious emissions reductions targets for most buildings over 25,000 square feet. The requirements of this law have two phases: thresholds in 2024-2029 apply to the 20% most carbon-intensive buildings in New York City, and mandates for 2030-2034 apply to almost all of the remaining building stock. (Emissions limits for 2035 and beyond are to be established at a later date.) LL97 additionally mandates specific energy conservation measures–including leak repairs, temperature control installments, pipe insulations, and lighting upgrades–by December 31, 2024. These prescriptive measures, however, cannot alone meet the overall targets of LL97, which will require more intensive structural modifications such as deep building retrofits. To a limited extent, these requirements can be avoided through purchases of carbon offsets and renewable energy credits or the payment of penalties. However, in order to encourage permanent building alterations, the Law’s writers have engineered these penalties to be comparable to the construction costs of compliance.

Furthermore, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), passed this June by the New York State Legislature, provides interesting complexity to Local Law 97. Named “one of the world’s most ambitious climate plans,” this law mandates a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 2030 and an 85% reduction by 2050 with an aim towards net zero emissions across the state economy (in comparison to 1990 levels). A new body, the New York State Climate Action Council, is required to issue a draft “scoping” plan to implement the CLCPA within two years (as well as to issue a final plan within three years). In response, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is required adopt regulations to implement the scoping plan within four years. These regulations could include a combination of performance standards, emission limits, and other requirements; however, until they are determined in the scoping plan, it is difficult to predict the exact implications of CLCPA on internal sustainability policies of entities such as Columbia University.

Notably, both the CLCPA and LL97 provide for the ability to use the “alternative compliance mechanism” to offset a portion of emissions that cannot otherwise be mitigated through purchases of green power and energy storage, among others. However, the permissible offsets of the CLCPA under this mechanism are more limited than those of LL97. Additionally, in contrast to LL97, the CLCPA does not allow penalties as a substitute for emissions reductions. Therefore, once its economy-wide regulations kick in, the State law’s stricter mandates could clash with the flexibility of LL97. In short, landowners paying penalties in 2024 could find themselves out of adherence to the CLCPA in 2030.

As a prominent presence in the city’s landscape, Columbia will need to respond to the mandates of both laws. The University’s Environmental Stewardship Office, using the brand Sustainable Columbia, released its first Sustainability Plan in 2017 and has already made significant progress in campus greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Notably, the 2018 update to the Plan reported 47% reductions at the Morningside campus, 11.31% at the Medical Center, and 20% at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory since 2006. Additionally, Columbia reached 100% renewable electricity last year through the purchase of one-time renewable energy credits. However, the campus’ heating systems–including those of Manhattanville campus now under construction–are powered by natural gas and oil, presenting a challenge to the achievement of a truly carbon neutral campus. Sustainable Columbia announced a commitment to achieving carbon neutrality this past April but did not specify by when it would do so. Build it Green, a club in Columbia’s Sustainability Management master’s program, have initiated a task force for the purposes of achieving a carbon neutral building stock on Columbia’s campuses. Build it Green seeks to provide Columbia with additional research and analysis in order to motivate expedited construction processes on the university’s campuses.

According to Columbia’s facilities department, the new Sustainability Plan to be issued in April 2021 will respond to LL97 for the University’s 149 covered buildings. (Facilities must also determine which of these buildings fall within the first implementation phase of LL97 and which the second.) When asked specifically about engaging in deep retrofit construction, University Facilities responded that “all possible solutions and optimal solutions will be suggested as part of the new sustainability plan and ongoing analysis thereafter.” Such retrofits can be extremely costly, but they are underway in other parts of New York. For example, RetrofitNY, a program of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority seeking to reach net-zero energy use in affordable housing units, has issued a total of $30 million in initial contract awards as of 2018. When asked specifically about the use of the alternative compliance mechanism in lieu of proactive retrofit construction, Columbia Facilities responded that “all options that have scientific integrity and are allowed under the law should be under consideration,” and that “carefully selected quality carbon offsets could be an important part of the portfolio of initiatives used by Columbia as a climate leader.” If Columbia has trouble meeting the deadlines of LL97, it can legally apply for an adjustment in quotas or penalties. However, as a “climate leader,” it should not have to.

Nilda Mesa, Adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, founded Columbia’s environmental stewardship office in 2006, and current sustainability planning efforts are led by Jessica Prata, the Assistant Vice President in charge of the Environmental Stewardship Office. Back in 2006, Mesa said, building emissions profiles were not on the University’s radar. She also notes the present deferred maintenance of much of the campus building stock, which requires expensive and unglamorous attention. Furthermore, Mesa characterizes Columbia’s institutional politics as “fairly risk-averse” and “fiscally prudent.” In the last thirteen years, the demands of urban sustainability–as well as the definition of a sustainable college campus–have radically transformed, and keeping up with the ambition of state and city legislation will remain a challenge for this conservative institution.

The recent declarations of climate emergencies in New York City and across the globe, hundreds of carbon neutrality commitments from American colleges and universities, and President Bollinger’s announcement of a Climate Change Task Force as well as his climate-focused capital campaign all signal that Columbia must eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions. One can derive hope from New York’s leadership in passing the ambitious LL97 and CLCPA. However, the follow-through of main players in New York real estate–Columbia included–will be required to fulfill the promise that these laws provide. Underlying the challenges of institutional climate action include the tension between outwardly ambitious commitments and internally incremental progress. However, though the task at hand is large, the ticking climate clock requires radical responses now. Columbia must remain responsive to the climate crisis in its goals as well as in its follow-through. It sure has the minds needed to do so.


Arianna Menzelos is a junior in Columbia College. She has co-led Columbia for Carbon Neutrality, a campaign urging the University to commit to carbon neutrality in its upcoming Sustainability Plan, and she worked as an intern for the Sabin Center this past summer.



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