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New York Museums Must Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions or Face Fines

NEW YORK—In an attempt to fight climate change, the New York City Council passed a landmark package of bills that will force thousands of large buildings across the five boroughs to drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or face substantial fines. While hospitals, houses of worship, public housing, and rent-controlled residential buildings are exempt from the new law, museums are not.

Among the city’s cultural institutions that must comply are the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the New Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, which is currently undergoing an expansion that will be completed in October; the Studio Museum in Harlem’s new building, which is under construction; and Pace Gallery’s headquarters, which is slated to open in September.

“Every day we wait is a day our planet gets closer to the point of no-return,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio when he announced the new legislation on Earth Day, Monday, April 22. “New York City’s Green New Deal meets that reality head on. We are confronting the same interests that created the climate crisis and deepened inequality. There’s no time to waste. We’re taking action now, before it's too late.” The de Blasio administration is also committed to converting 100 percent of the city government’s operations to clean electricity, which includes city-owned buildings that are on lease to museums and cultural institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The legislation, which is part of a series of bills called the the Climate Mobilization Act, targets structures of more than 25,000 square feet in size—there are more than 50,000 citywide— and will require owners to retrofit their buildings to make them more energy efficient. While the plan is ambitious, the goal is to achieve a 40 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. According to the New York Times, buildings currently account for 67 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the city because of the energy required for heating, cooling, and lighting. However, many of the systems currently in use tend to be inefficient.

The Green New Deal policies are laid out in OneNYC 2050: Building a Strong and Fair City, a new, comprehensive $14 billion plan that aims to significantly shrink the city’s carbon footprint. The laws will also ban all glass facades in new construction (unless they meet strict performance guidelines); make the recycling of organic material mandatory; and phase out single-use plastic foodware. “No single-handed policy can completely reverse the effects of climate change, but this policy, when enacted, will be the largest emissions reduction policy in the history of New York City or any city anywhere,” said Costa Constantinides, who represents northern Queens.

Despite the major leap in fighting climate change, many property owners fear that the cost to make the necessary changes to their buildings will be high. Mark Chambers, the director of the mayor’s office of sustainability, confirmed that the cost of improvements would likely surpass $4 billion, but would ultimately result in lower operating expenses. Chambers also told the New York Times that tenants or building owners who have high energy needs may be able to bring their concerns to a new city agency, the Office of Building Energy and Emissions Performance, who will review their case and potentially adjust compliance paths.

Since many museums must likely have an outsized energy usage— they spend large amounts of money regulating temperatures so that they are optimal for the storage and display of art—they may be able to appeal to the agency for variances, but may not need to. Making the city’s cultural institutions more energy sustainable was a goal outlined in the CreateNYC plan, which was rolled out in 2017. Among the projects already carried out under the plan are the new skylights in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European wing and the HVAC upgrades at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

Commenting on the Climate Mobilization Act, Representative Jose Serrano said: “As the federal government fails to acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis, New York City is leading the way by taking bold and decisive action for a clean energy future. An investment in our environment means not only cutting emissions and expanding renewable energy, but also creating good jobs and improving the quality of life of all New Yorkers as we move toward a greener, healthier city. I commend Mayor de Blasio for his leadership and commitment to resiliency and sustainability.”

April 25, 2019