Q&A: NYC’s ‘Getting Sustainability Done’ action plan
To coincide with Climate Week NYC and the United Nations SDG Summit, both taking place this September in New York City, the GI Hub is publishing interviews with public and private sector leaders working at the municipal, state, national, and global levels – bringing you their thoughts on the importance of infrastructure in the climate transition.
Today we are joined by Vicki Cerullo, Acting Executive Director, New York City (NYC) Mayor’s Office of Climate & Environmental Justice. Vicki explains the city’s latest action plan for a cleaner, greener, and more just city, and outlines the plan’s key initiatives and achievements.
Q: The PlaNYC: Getting Sustainability Done action plan was launched in April this year for a ‘cleaner, greener and more just city'. What does the plan prioritise, and what progress has been made?
PlaNYC focuses on environmental justice through bold, swift action to reduce our contribution to climate change and protect New Yorkers – especially our most vulnerable – from impacts we are already experiencing. It prioritises actions with short-term benefits, including job creation and air pollution reduction, and implements long-term goals, such as achieving a 30% tree canopy cover.
We have already accomplished several goals, including delivering a report on waste containerisation, expanding organics smart bins, expanding solar tax abatement for NYC residents, and launching a climate innovation hub. These were achieved within five months, with more to come.
Q: What were the key lessons from the planning process, and do you have advice for other cities looking to develop similar plans?
My advice is “Don’t feel like you have to go it alone”. We engaged more than 240 stakeholders representing labour, transportation, energy, buildings, housing, conservancies, green economy, and infrastructure. We also analysed and incorporated NYC Speaks Data (a public-private engagement and government transformation initiative) and held roundtables with stakeholders and members of our Sustainability Advisory Board.
These activities showed that people wanted the plan to:
- Highlight climate education
- Have clear goals and targets
- Lead and inspire the private sector
- Use community engagement to raise awareness
- Prioritise environmental justice communities
- Harness available federal funds.
Q: The action plan focuses on environmental justice – can you explain what this is, and why it is important for NYC?
To us, environmental justice means:
- Embedding equity in our resilience and adaptation strategies, and dedicating people and resources to advancing equity
- Enabling lived experience to inform policymaking, by supplementing quantitative data with qualitative data
- Promoting projects with multiple socioeconomic and environmental co-benefits, including living wage jobs, healthy communities, universal waterfront access, public transit and bike connections, heat mitigation, drainage improvements, and others.
In the coming weeks, we’ll launch a citywide initiative to maximise infrastructure and climate funding opportunities to support the most at-risk and environmental justice neighbourhoods.
Also on the horizon is the release of a report that will highlight disparities in environmental areas across various issues, including access to transit, food, open spaces, and housing, and exposure to polluted air, water, and hazardous materials. It will include a mapping tool with more than 90 unique data layers so residents, community-based organisations, and city agencies can visualise data and see the cumulative impacts. This will also help drive policy addressing disparities and inequalities.
Q: How do you see environmental justice relating to the UN Sustainable Development Goals?
Environmental justice and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are very connected. In advancing these, particularly climate action, we must ensure the representation and inclusion of our most overburdened communities.
Q: A guiding principle of the action plan is to strengthen private sector investments through incentives and mandates – can you demonstrate what this looks like?
Our office has mandates to change behaviour, and PlaNYC’s goals include a maximum summer indoor temperature policy, mandatory cooling requirements for new construction by 2025, minimum flood resilience standards, and an anti-idling program.
One way we use incentives is through public-private partnerships that encourage voluntary action. An example of this is a voluntary leadership initiative and public-private partnership between the city and leaders in the private, institutional, and non-profit sectors who have committed to decarbonising their properties. Earlier this year, in partnership with Coolfood and Greener by Default, we launched a sister initiative around decarbonising food purchases by 25% by 2030.
Q: How has the Inflation Reduction Act influenced climate policy and investment at the city level?
Several of our projects are dependent on federal and state funding to unlock capital for critical climate projects across our five boroughs. From more than 36 grants and 70 applications, we were allocated nearly USD1 billion in total federal infrastructure funding, and our goal is to submit an additional USD1 billion in funding applications by the end of 2023.
Some of the projects this funding will support include:
- The electrification of school buses
- The installation of e-bike charging and storage in public housing
- The installation of water infrastructure for urban agriculture and community gardens
- The redevelopment of Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market.
These projects will help us reduce emissions, build well-paying and accessible jobs in our green economy, and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Q: NYC has forecast more than 230,000 green economy jobs by 2030 – how will this be achieved?
Several transformations are accelerating our green economy, including government spending, ambitious policies and initiatives that balance mandating and incentivising climate action, and changes in business practices and consumer preferences for sustainable, low-carbon innovations.
We are catalysing the growth of green industries and businesses, which will cultivate jobs as new industries emerge and existing industries evolve. As PlaNYC outlines, multiple sectors will be a part of this transformation, from clean energy and buildings to transportation and waste.
Our primary focus is on ensuring equitable economic benefits for residents, which is why we’ve committed to talent development initiatives for high-growth green occupations in burgeoning sectors, to increase economic mobility within environmental justice communities.
Q: As the United Nations Secretary-General stated, “Cities are on the front line for realising the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on climate change” – to realise these, what lessons from other global cities could NYC apply?
Climate budgeting in Oslo and consumption-based emissions inventorying in London are two examples. C40 was a partner on both. C40 and Oslo’s leadership provided the framework for NYC’s climate budgeting process, and to help us answer the following questions:
- Do our investment choices align with our long-term climate needs, whether explicitly climate-related or not?
- Are we considering available climate knowledge when spending taxpayer dollars?
- What is the collective impact of NYC’s policies and investments in achieving short- and long-term targets?
- Are we on track to achieve our goals, or is more work needed?
Since 2005, NYC has had a citywide emissions inventory that measures where emissions come from and tracks progress in reducing them. This year for the first time, C40 and its partners completed a consumption-based emissions inventory for NYC, which measures emissions from consumption of goods, services, transportation, food, and housing. This showed that buildings and transportation are still the top two contributors to emissions, and food is the third. This important insight will help us think about how individual choice and government action can address climate change together.
Through a large-scale research effort that examined global approaches to the climate transition, the GI Hub has identified 15 transition pathways that governments can take for infrastructure development for sustainability, resilience, and social inclusion. Learn more about these pathways for infrastructure mitigation and resilience.