A case study that examines how the largest city in America is charting its decarbonization journey.
By Deb Harris, ICF
We’re entering a pivotal time in the fight to stabilize our changing climate–the EPA has reported climate change impacts are only intensifying, as demonstrated by recent extreme weather events and rising temperatures, which are linked to increasing amounts of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.
While federal action will accelerate and help level the playing field to address our changing climate, it will take more than the Biden Administration’s proposed infrastructure plan to create a sustainable, equitable clean energy future. This gap can be bridged by city, state and regional climate actions, however, the plans needed to drive the required levels of action may not exist, take time to implement and may lack clarity or concrete next steps or resources to back them.
Over half (51%) of cities globally do not have a climate action plan in place, according to a recent CDP Worldwide report. On top of this planning gap, many questions still remain, such as:
- How can cities, states, and regions achieve carbon neutrality goals?
- Who has the authority to take action, and to what extent and pace should they act?
- How can cities and states make progress toward a net-zero future while maintaining flexibility to take advantage of evolving technologies?
Modeling and analytics to the rescue
The power of data and analytics, met with actively coordinated plans of action across stakeholders–policymakers, utilities, businesses, local and community organizations, and residents–will better position American governments to achieve their carbon-neutral goals.
Data and analytics can provide a detailed picture of where GHG emissions come from, and where the best reduction options lie, giving cities, states and regions a clearer understanding of their starting point and paths forward for achieving carbon neutrality goals. Coupling predictive analytics with climate science and deep engagement offers insights to forge ambitious yet practical solutions.
We’ve seen this come to life through the “Pathways to Carbon-Neutral NYC: Modernize, Reimagine, Reach” study, unveiling how New York City can achieve carbon neutrality goals by 2050. This collaboration among the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Con Edison, and National Grid stands as the most comprehensive scenario analysis to-date of the city’s energy supply and demand over the next 30 years.
The study exemplifies the coordination required to reach decarbonization goals at the scale and pace the climate change challenge demands, examining how energy efficiency, renewables, vehicle and building electrification, and low carbon fuels can be implemented in the city’s unique energy landscape.
Indeed, it is this kind of sector- and geography-specific, integrated quantitative modeling approach that cities, states, and counties across the U.S. can use to create strategies for deep carbon reductions. Our analysis in New York City, for example, highlights the need for bold and immediate action that ramps up existing carbon reduction strategies across key sectors.
How New York City can achieve a carbon-neutral future
The Carbon-Neutral NYC study outlines three pathways–electrification, low-carbon fuels, and diversified–to carbon neutrality, each with distinct technology deployment strategies that modernize how New Yorkers use energy and reimagine the roles of energy infrastructure. Each pathway is projected to reduce the city’s emissions by at least 80% by 2050, with the diversified pathway estimated to take GHG cuts beyond 90%.
Alongside these pathways, the study identifies additional steps required to meet New York City’s carbon neutrality target. Upgrades are especially needed in the building sector–with over 900,000 buildings undergoing energy efficiency improvements, in addition to the electrification of heating and hot water systems in up to 642,000 buildings. Widespread adoption of electric vehicles is also in the city’s future, with approximately 375,000 EVs projected on-road by 2030 and more than 1.5 million by 2050.
While the study acknowledges the need for a renewable-energy powered grid and a significant amount of energy storage to balance it, additional analysis is required in areas such as reliability and resiliency. Also, transitioning to low-carbon fuels, such as renewable natural gas and hydrogen, could be needed to cover remaining gas needs, especially for end uses that are challenging to electrify. In addition, rapidly increasing building energy efficiency and electrification are a large part of the plan.
These emission reduction pathways will create wide-ranging benefits for those who work and live in New York City, as well as the tens of millions who visit each year. It will also pave the way for essential financial planning due to the fact that major investments will be required to decarbonize America’s largest city. The total costs are estimated to be $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion between 2020 and 2050 but further analysis will be required as more detailed information becomes available. In addition, further work is necessary to develop strategies to address these costs and ensure that the benefits of the climate transition are allocated equitably.
Fostering partnerships to successfully meet carbon neutrality goals
Working with key stakeholders as part of planning efforts helps build the momentum and partnerships needed to move from planning into action.
This study was a groundbreaking partnership between the City’s Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the major regulated energy companies, Con Edison and National Grid. Through this collaborative effort, New York City gained insights into multiple strategies that could help it meet its energy and climate goals. And, the area’s utilities–essential partners in supporting citywide decarbonization–will consider these findings as they adapt their planning and investment efforts to support a carbon-neutral future for the city.
This New York City study is a leading example of how new approaches to stakeholder engagement strengthens and fosters the key relationships needed to take the next step beyond a typical planning or analysis effort. As cities, states and others across the nation conduct their own decarbonization analyses, and grow partnerships with key stakeholders – such as utilities, policymakers, innovators, building owners, and city residents – the U.S. will be better poised to take decarbonization from analysis into action.
About the Author
Deb Harris is Senior Director of Climate Planning at ICF and ICF Climate Center Senior Fellow. Deb is an expert in climate action, decarbonization planning, and stakeholder engagement for states, cities, counties, and utilities, often working across subnational and national climate action and energy plans, greenhouse gas inventories, and decarbonization scenarios analyses. She works with a broad range of domestic and international clients, including Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York City, the City of Philadelphia, and various utilities. She also supports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, among others.