Lessons from Afar: Labels and Locals

“We in New York City like to think we’re the best,” began Urban Green Chief Program Officer Cecil Scheib in his opening remarks at last week’s panel discussion, Lessons from Afar: Europe’s Approach to Energy Policy, an event co-presented by Urban Green Council, NYU School of Law and the Sabin Center on Climate Change Law at Columbia University. But, as panelists Nico Kienzl (Atelier Ten), Miranda Schreurs (Freie Universität Berlin), and Marcos Vaquer Caballería (Carlos III de Madrid University) demonstrated, believing you’re the best and being the best are two very different things.

Lessons from Afar

Buildings account for 40% of global energy consumption worldwide,” noted co-organizer Danielle Spiegel-Feld. “This proportion is even higher in cities—around 70% in NYC.” And since much of the current urban building stock will still stand in 2050, the discussion centered on how cities can reduce the energy burden from existing buildings.

Drawing from Atelier Ten and Urban Green’s joint research project coming in 2016, Kienzl offered an overview of lessons learned from cities including Frankfurt, London, San Francisco, Singapore, and Sydney. A key finding of the report has been the impact of aligning energy codes with policy goals, and the ways progress is measured against those goals. But culture and climate, emphasized Kienzl, provide necessary context to the lessons we draw. A city’s location, for example, affects how codes can impact demand for sustainable materials as well as their costs. While sustainable materials and technology may be “globally available,” said Kienzl, costs vary widely in response to regulatory and market-based demands.

Across the Atlantic, the European Union “easily” met its 20% improvement targets for carbon emissions reductions and renewable energy development, but as Schreurs noted, it is struggling to achieve the same goal for energy efficiency. In Germany, standard energy efficiency improvements to existing buildings yield a mere 1% reduction in energy use each year. She remains optimistic, though, and gave a nod to federal-level restructuring that will encourage greater dialogue between the Building and Environmental ministries, as well as initiatives in many German cities that are leading the way at the local level. Bottrop, for example, a city situated in the “Rust Belt of Germany,” is piloting a sustainable urban development program that aims to cut the city’s GHG emissions in half within a decade through building retrofits and public outreach. Hannover, another city, is targeting 95% carbon reductions by 2050 with a stakeholder- and resident-based master plan that is being used as a model nationwide.

Lessons from Afar

Spain has also set ambitious goals, aiming for near-zero energy municipal buildings by the end of 2018, and by 2020 for the private sector. According to Caballería, this will be difficult due to budgeting, an aging building stock, and the technical complexity of the task. However, he cited recent laws such as 2008’s Building Technology Code and the EU’s requirement for Energy Performance Certificates as tools toward meeting these goals.

Additionally, building labeling schemes, which work not unlike NYC’s food safety grading system, have helped to raise public awareness of and support for improving poorly performing buildings. But, while labeling programs serve as useful tools for the public, many questions remain on implementation: Will an A-rated building still be an A in 20 years? How can building labels or ratings evolve to indicate and even reward progress? Caballería offered the idea of linking higher ratings to lower property taxes; in Germany, on the other hand, there is increasing public awareness of how ratings impact rent through increased utility costs. Clearly, NYC is just beginning to draw from Europe’s experiences in deciding whether and how to implement a labeling scheme of its own, among other worldwide lessons.

The panel discussion co-hosted by Urban Green Council, New York School of Law, the Sabin Center on Climate Change Law at Columbia University received generous support from American Friends of Bucerius, Perez Llorca LLP, the Transatlantic Climate Bridge, and University Carlos III of Madrid.

Lessons from Afar

About the authors

Megha Jain
Megha is a Research Associate at Urban Green Council.