90 by 50: A Few Thoughts

New York City’s Urban Green Council has released a report, 90 by 50, that charts a path towards a 90% reduction in municipal greenhouse gas emissions by 2050–and does it with technologies that are available today and without requiring massive behavioral change. Slate provides a detailed review here, but I’ll add on a few thoughts on this ambitious roadmap.

  • The plan’s biggest target is building energy usage, which is a tough nut to crack: as Slate puts it, “Inefficient buildings are much harder to replace than inefficient cars.” However, a citywide program of gradual retrofits–individual and district geothermal heat pumps, triple-glazed windows and better insulation–is projected to drastically cut GHG emissions and energy requirements in the long term. However, given that property owners tend to be risk-averse and have higher-than-normal discount rates and payback requirements for efficiency measures, this seems to require either strong regulations for building upkeep and retrofit, or some kind of reworking of utility serving to include not just energy but energy efficiency measures as a combined service.
  • One of the few individual-level sacrifices the plan calls for is curtailing the use of glass curtain walls. As the UGC’s Dick Leigh remarks, “People want buildings with huge expanses of glass. But no matter how good the glass is, it’s not going to be as good as an insulated wall.” While Leigh is technically correct, I wonder if this isn’t a misguided stand–sweeping views and better natural light are real amenities, and ones that make small high-rise units more livable. New Yorkers generally seem willing to live at very high densities, but elsewhere I wonder if the marginal gains in building performance make up for losses in residential density.
  • Electrifying the transit network? Yes. Doing it with trolleys? Not so fast. Surface trolley networks can make sense in cities that need to revitalize tourist districts or that want to signal a commitment to transit improvements before it has the population or ridership to justify real rapid transit. Does that sound like New York City? Moving towards a low-emission and/or electrified bus fleet is almost certainly a better use of funds.
  • This just goes to show how firmly big cities are situated at the forefront of climate change mitigation compared to the US and Canadian federal governments. When’s the last time you’ve seen a feasible and pragmatic plan this ambitious considered seriously at the national level?


Yglesias and Right-Sizing Regulation

Matthew Yglesias writes in Slate that he’s found the crux of America’s problems: we’re “simultaneously overregulated and underregulated”:

It is much too difficult to get business and occupational licenses; there are excessive restrictions on the wholesaling and retailing of alcoholic beverages; exclusionary zoning codes cripple the economy; and I’m sure there are more problems than I’m even aware of.

At the same time, it continues to be the case that even if you ignore climate change, there are huge problematic environmental externalities involved in the energy production and industrial sectors of the economy. And you shouldn’t ignore climate change!

While his argument fairly portrays some major issues in US politics, Yglesias paints with some very broad strokes here: local regulations are largely rent-seeking from established businesses and residents, while national-scale regulations that we need to solve big problems with climate, energy, finance, and pollution aren’t happening. Fair enough; it’s not hard to find examples on both sides of that coin. But ‘right-sizing’ is a difficult dance, and burdensome local regulations are often the next-best solution to hard large-scale problems.

The complexity of modern zoning codes and procedures–one of the items on Yglesias’ naughty list–are both a response to shrinking federal budgets for local infrastructure and a way of regulating the kinds of externalities that occur on a micro-scale in urban areas. While the urgency of separating factories and schoolyards with heavy-handed exclusionary zoning has passed, our desire for more livable places to live, work, and play has only grown. Great streets and vibrant public spaces don’t just happen–they’re almost always a function of planning and coordinated partnerships between developers, landowners, businesses, and government. That means regulations.

Meanwhile, funds for amenities and infrastructure–ranging from transit and bike lanes to supportive housing and daycare to public art–are all increasingly strained by the devolution of financial responsibility from the federal to the local level, where governments are less able to raise money by borrowing or raising taxes. The response many cities have been left with is systems like impact fees and development cost charges, which finance the infrastructure costs of new developments. Here in Canada, Vancouver’s complicated system of negotiated density bonuses in return for building public amenities or going the extra mile on design exemplifies this approach–but it also adds a heavy regulatory burden, especially for new or outside developers.

Local government is inevitably messy and self-interested, but it’s also responsive. When the federal government isn’t, localities wade in and make the best of a bad situation–as we’ve seen across North America on large-scale issues from obesity to climate change. Leadership in Congress that’s genuinely motivated to solve national challenges might help set a better example of how to scale regulations at the local level… but I’m not holding my breath.