De Blasio’s climate rhetoric on the stump doesn’t mirror reality back home
NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio is pointing to his mayoral record on climate change as he tries to gain traction in the Democratic presidential field, but almost six years into his tenure, much of his environmental resume is heavier on rhetoric than actual gains.
De Blasio — known in New York City for being shuttled from his mayoral mansion in an SUV, albeit a hybrid model, to his gym in another part of town — has made a recent habit of making grand pronouncements on his climate accomplishments.
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“It’s a priority unlike any other because we deal with, obviously, the health care issues, we deal with education, we deal with so many other issues, but nothing compares to survival,” de Blasio said during recent campaign swing through Iowa.
But whether it’s building emissions, organic waste collection or even protections in the event of another major storm, the New York City mayor’s priorities seem to have been largely elsewhere during his tenure, and his actual accomplishments on climate often fall short of his oratory.
“I think he is talking a lot about the environment because it’s trending and thinks that it will help him with his presidential ambitions,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, a Latino organization in Brooklyn that advocates for sustainability issues. “But just in terms of his record, I feel that he’s moved very slowly. He makes big, sweeping statements and has big, bold, sweeping goals, but the action doesn’t come close to those statements.”
Buildings are by far the biggest source of greenhouse gases in New York City, making up roughly 70 percent of the city’s emissions. De Blasio launched a program in 2015 to get landlords to voluntarily cut emissions. In 2016, he announced — just in time for a U.N. conference on the Paris climate accord — that he would mandate upgrades to buildings to improve their energy efficiency.
It wasn’t until April 2019, though, that a bill actually made it through the City Council.
Days before announcing his candidacy this month, de Blasio held a rally in Trump Tower to put President Donald Trump “on notice,” as the landlord of eight properties that must cut their emissions within 10 years or face fines under the new law. The mayor touted the measure as the city’s version of the “Green New Deal,” borrowing language from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who popularized the term at the federal level.
“I don’t just talk about Green New Deal — we’re implementing it here in New York City. Tough mandates on buildings to make sure there’s less emissions,” the mayor said on a recent swing through South Carolina.
But long-time environmental advocates in New York City say certain caveats in the law could blunt its purpose.
The measure, which city leaders tout as the first of its kind, contains a provison that was never envisioned in past versions: Rather than do the hard and expensive work of updating building systems to be more efficient, the bill allows owners to buy renewable energy credits to offset the use of fossil fuel-based energy — with some of that clean energy anticipated from sources that don’t yet exist. The city currently takes 70 percent of its power from fossil-based generation.
Building upgrades could have created new jobs, training unskilled workers in a growing trade while cutting energy use, but with the offset provision, critics say those jobs will be left on the table. Environmental groups say there’s concern landlords could avoid making energy efficiency improvements — the original intent of the bill — by only purchasing the credits and not upgrading their buildings.
“We have to change the way we address the climate, but at the same time, we’re going to create a lot of good-paying jobs,” de Blasio said during a stop in South Carolina this month.
Eddie Bautista, head of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, has pushed for years to use greenhouse gas reduction as a spur to create new “green jobs” — an espoused priority of the federal Green New Deal.
“If the unlimited renewable energy credit purchases could be the loophole it sounds like, not only are you not creating new jobs, you’re not reducing emissions at the level and scale the crisis demands,” Bautista said.
While building emissions are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the city, there are other climate issues where the mayor has not seemed to sense much urgency.
During his first mayoral campaign, de Blasio ran on the promise of mandating recycling of organic waste — food and yard scraps that are a potent source of methane when left to rot in landfills. That mandate never happened.
In 2015, he declared he would set the city on a course toward “zero waste” where 90 percent of city refuse would be diverted from landfills by 2030. That initiative appears way behind schedule.
Key to achieving zero waste is the expansion of organic waste collection. Food waste and yard detritus accounts for one-third of the city’s waste stream, amounting to an estimated 1 million tons of compostable material being sent to landfills annually.
But de Blasio has repeatedly withheld funding to expand the voluntary collection of organic waste, and the city is years behind its promise to make the program mandatory — the same way recycling glass and plastic is mandatory. De Blasio in April recommitted the city to enacting a mandatory program to collect organic waste, but released few details on how he plans to execute that vision.
In a trip to Iowa this month, he reiterated that pledge.
“We’re going to be doing a lot more with our organics program. We’re going to be going to the City Council for legislation to make it mandatory. That’s coming up this year,” the mayor said when asked by reporters, after touting the virtues of ethanol. “We’re going to be doing a lot more, also, to encourage recycling. A lot of work to do on that front, but I’m very hopeful.”
The current rate of residential recycling in New York is roughly 17 percent. By comparison, San Francisco’s rate is about 80 percent, Los Angeles’ rate is 76 percent and the national average is about 34 percent.
“I don’t want to be the person that is laying on the mayor because he wants to run for president, but if you look at it objectively, there’s no one in our community who can say he has been a champion or made a significant difference in how we handle trash in the city of New York to achieve the goals that he set forth,” said City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the city’s sanitation committee.
It’s not just climate change prevention where de Blasio’s rhetoric runs ahead of his reality. He’s also lagged in protections for climate-related events, such as Hurricane Sandy.
“What folks in Charleston are experiencing, folks in New York have experienced, too. We obviously had Hurricane Sandy — the worst natural disaster in our history,” the mayor said in South Carolina recently. “Dozens of people were lost. Their lives were lost; billions in damage.”
But New York City’s coast remains almost as vulnerable today as it was nearly seven years ago when Sandy struck.
The administration faced pushback from local residents and green groups last September when, to the surprise of local residents, it drastically altered the design for the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project — a delayed initiative that received federal funding back in 2014 from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The project was originally supposed to break ground in 2017. Now, work won’t begin until spring 2020.
Earlier this year, de Blasio unveiled a $10 billion proposal to protect Wall Street by extending the shoreline of Lower Manhattan, while admitting there was no funding for the project to be realized.
The announcement sparked criticism from several Council members, who said if the de Blasio administration is going to unveil an unfunded vision to protect New York, why not include all five boroughs?
“The administration has not put forth or conducted a comprehensive five-borough plan,” said Council Member Mark Treyger, whose district includes Brooklyn’s Coney Island. “They’ll keep pointing to their books and brochures that tell you they have these visions, but many of these visions were produced without community input.”
But where policies haven’t fully materialized, de Blasio should get credit for setting bold policy goals that drastically shifted expectations for the city’s environmental landscape, Bautista said.
“His announcement declaring a zero-waste goal for New York City was pretty significant,” Bautista said. “I’m hard-pressed to think of a large city in the United States that made that kind of bold statement in terms of an aspirational goal for the city. … You’re almost inviting disappointment, but that’s not how advocates think of the world.”
And the mayor has some real accomplishments on the environment.
The city banned foam food containers in January following a protracted legal battle against industry leaders. The de Blasio administration is also moving ahead with a waste franchising plan, which would cut emissions from commercial garbage trucks, improve recycling rates and give the city more control over the private waste industry. Proponents of the buildings bill say where it fails to encourage energy efficiency improvements, it will be made up by creating a bigger market for renewable energy.
But a tendency to overpromise and underdeliver on signature initiatives has prevented de Blasio from earning a reputation as an environmental crusader.
“It’s very much a mixed picture,” said Eric Goldstein, New York City environment director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The environment hasn’t been a top-tier issue for the mayor, but nevertheless he has moved the ball forward with the City Council on a number of really big issues.”
A City Hall spokesperson defended the mayor’s environmental record.
“We’ve helped more than 5,000 privately-owned buildings go green and we’re implementing the first-in-the-world buildings mandate that will take inefficient buildings to task,” Raul Contreras said in a statement. “We’ve also implemented enough solar energy to power nearly 50,000 households and put 2,000 electric vehicles on our roads while still reducing our fleet. To top this all off, we’re aggressively implementing our Green New Deal in the face of federal inaction, and this is only the beginning.”
But as de Blasio heralds his environmental initiatives in campaign rallies across the nation, advocates back home note there’s much more to be done on the ground to see them through.
“There have been moments of ambitious goal-setting, but then there’s been missed opportunity and then the question of, ‘What did you actually implement and change post-announcement?’” Bautista said. “Those things are still mixed bags so far.”
Sally Goldenberg contributed to this report.