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Editorial: When a ban is not a ban

Tough talk about glass architecture could mean better business.

May 28, 2019  By Patrick Flannery

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio made quite a stir in late April when he seemed to announce New York would “ban” glass and steel skyscapers. Here’s his actual quote: “We’re going to introduce legislation to ban the glass and steel skyscrapers that have contributed so much to global warming. They have no place in our city or on our earth any more.”

The legislation he’s talking about is the so-called Dirty Buildings Bill, one of 10 bills passed by New York city council as part of its Climate Mobilization Act – a sweeping set of green initatives designed to bring New York in line with the Paris Climate Accords.

Later in the announcement he goes on at some length about the evils of inefficient buildings, at one point bellowing that “our buildings must stop emitting so many dangerous pollutants.” I wasn’t aware that buildings actually emitted anything, but I suppose we can allow that he was taking a bit of an oratorical shortcut around saying “must stop contributing to the emission of so many dangerous pollutants by the energy sources that power them.” I admit his phrasing is definitely punchier and easier to understand. Though it does rather blur the point that if the buildings were powered by renewable energy sources or nuclear, they would not contribute to carbon emissions at all no matter how much power they drew.

Then things got weird. “If a company wants to build a big skyscraper they can use a lot of glass,” de Blasio went on, “if they do all the other things needed to reduce our emissions.”

Oh. So, far from the “ban” he mentions initially, we are talking about a trade-off system to meet a whole-building efficiency standard.

So what is New York actually mandating? According to the Grist blog: “It requires around 50,000 of the city’s buildings to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050 by installing new windows, insulation and other retrofits to become more energy efficient.”

Given the age of most of New York’s buildings, renovations delivering 40 per cent improvements in energy efficiency are probably possible with off-the-shelf products that would have been due over the next 10 years anyway. So really the announcement is boringly similar to what has already been proposed or imposed in many jurisdictions across the continent. De Blasio’s fiery rhetoric about bans and dirty buildings should be seen in the context of a politician trying to look tough in the face of the powerful New York real estate lobby that has worked against tighter energy standards for years.

Do your best to act indignant in public about the insulting implication that architectural glass is a climate villain. Then smile to yourself as you cash your cheques for lucrative high-performance upgrades, paid for in part with the tax dollars of those slinging the slurs.

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