New York City Is Launching Its Own Green New Deal. Now Museums Have to Get Up to Code—and Fast

The 33 cultural institutions on city-owned property are tasked with cutting emissions in half by 2030.

New York City Council has voted to pass the Climate Mobilization Act, a landmark piece of legislation described as the city’s own version of the Green New Deal, that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from large and mid-sized buildings. Among them? Cultural institutions like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum, and even the planned headquarters of Pace Gallery.

The act is “some of the most ambitious climate legislation in the world to combat and mitigate the dramatic effects of global warming,” said council speaker Corey Johnson in a statement. “There is no time to waste. We have to move away from fossil fuel to save our planet and ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren.” Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the act into law.

The first compliance date is 2024, with standards becoming increasingly strict in 2030, 2040, and 2050—by 2030, the city hopes to reduce its emissions 40 percent from 2005 levels. The goal for 2050 is an ambitious 80 percent reduction.

“There are talks about the Rockaways, Coney Island, and neighborhoods in Staten Island literally being wiped off the map by the end of this century if we do not act,” council member Costa Constantinides said during Thursday’s vote, as reported by Curbed. “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.”

Installation view of "The Orchid Show" courtesy The New York Botanical Garden.

Installation view of “The Orchid Show.” Photo courtesy The New York Botanical Garden.

City-owned buildings, including museums and cultural institutions, will be subject to even stricter standards. “Under the legislation, the city must reduce overall emissions of all city assets (including buildings, the vehicle fleet, etc.) 50 percent by 2030,” Ryan Max of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs told artnet News in an email.

Fortunately, however, the city and its museums have been investing in energy sustainability projects as part of the department’s CreateNYC plan, unveiled in 2017.

The department has already put $5 million a year over a four-year period toward improving energy efficiency, including energy-efficient windows and HVAC upgrades at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, new skylights in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European wing, and $3.1 million in city capital funding for the Staten Island Children’s Museum’s HVAC systems. And between 2005 and 2017, the New York Botanical Garden cut energy use by 21 percent and carbon emissions by 53 percent.

The city’s Cultural Institutions Group, which is subject to the stricter standards regardless of size, includes 33 institutions located on city-owned property. Among them are the Museum of the Moving ImageMoMA PS1, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the American Museum of Natural History.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Author: Arad, Wikimedia Commons.

In the future, additional regulations targeting smaller privately owned buildings will likely be introduced, but for now, only privately owned buildings in excess of 25,000 feet will be affected, not counting hospitals and buildings with rent-regulated apartments; mega-galleries, however, are included. Even though only two percent of city structures fall under the new regulations’ purview, those buildings account for an outsize 30 percent off all New York City carbon emissions.

A number of institutions subject to these regulations—including the Met, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, MoMA, and Pace—did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

To get on track, buildings will need to be retrofitted with energy efficiency in mind, taking measures such as the installation of new windows and insulation. Landlords who fail to meet the emissions targets will face major fines. The city estimates that landlords will have to spend upwards of $4 billion in order to comply with the act, but claims their expenses will almost certainly be offset by lower operating costs going forward.

Among other components, the bill also will introduce a five-cent fee for each time a customer receives a paper bag, mandate a city study on the feasibility of replacing gas-fired power plants with renewable energy sources, require new construction to incorporate green roofs—and offer a tax abatement for property owners who install them on existing buildings.

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