U.N.’s Global Initiative for Resource-Efficient Cities: How Would NYC Fit In?

At the Rio+20 summit, the United Nations Environment Programme announced a new initiative aimed at helping cities become more sustainable, citing the rising number of global citizens who live in urban areas and the disproportionately high amount of waste, pollution and energy usage such areas produce. The Global Initiative for Resource-Efficient Cities will be a resource for large cities around the world to target green objectives like energy efficient buildings, efficient water use and sustainable waste management. There’s no certainty over whether New York will participate in the initiative, but I thought it would be fun to see how the city scores in the key areas of focus and what it could gain from the U.N.’s efforts.

Starting with energy efficient buildings, NYC has actually made big strides in recent years for both new and existing structures. Thanks in large part to the Urban Green Council, the New York Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, the city has pushed through major changes through the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan that require skyscrapers to monitor their energy usage and regularly conduct audits to show how the structures would benefit from energy efficiency retrofits (although the law stopped short of actually requiring the retrofits). Perhaps the most high-profile example of a building opting for a major retrofit is the Empire State Building, where an ongoing project aims to ultimately reduce energy usage by 38 percent and save $4.4 million a year. Recommendations made by the UGC’s Green Codes Task Force are gradually being adopted into the city’s building code, ensuring that the next generation of skyscrapers will be as green as possible.

In terms of efficient water use, necessary changes are still a work in progress. This year’s PlaNYC Progress Report details the city’s efforts to install Automated Meter Reading devices so residents can monitor their water usage and hopefully take steps to rein it in. The same technology can also alert customers about leaks. There has been a decrease in the water usage per capita since 2007, although the report doesn’t say by how much. Water conservation initiatives, including revising the Plumbing Code to incorporate greywater reuse standards and replacing inefficient fixtures, are still in the early stages of deployment.

Lastly, NYC could still do a lot more when it comes to sustainable waste management. Part of the problem there obviously lies with changing consumer behavior – no matter how many programs there are for recycling or composting, if residents continue to chuck everything in the trash there’s only so much the city can do. While the city claims in the PlaNYC Progress Report that it currently diverts 56 percent of solid waste from landfills, a recent report by the Citizens Budget Commission says NYC is lagging behind other areas on this front and outlines a possible long-term solution that makes sense fiscally and environmentally: converting waste to energy. According to Taxes In, Garbage Out: The Need for Better Solid Waste Disposal Policies in New York City, NYC could save $119 million and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent each year by converting one third of its trash into energy. This would obviously require huge costs up front to build or retrofit facilities to handle all that garbage, but it would certainly be a much better alternative to trucking the trash to landfills out of state.

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