The New York City apartment building where I grew up was built in the early 1960s. The building’s heating system still has only one thermostat for more than 150 apartments, and that thermostat is usually set in the mid-70s. If it’s too hot, you must manually adjust each radiator in the apartment (and there’s one for each room). Most people simply open a window or two instead.
This type of system is not unique in New York; I’ve lived in three other apartment buildings with similar one-size-fits-all heating. Tenants in these apartment buildings do not pay directly for their heat or hot water at all (the cost is added to the rent or building maintenance fees). Without direct economic pressure, a ridiculous amount of energy is wasted.
Scientists are now noticing the impact of this and other severe inefficiencies in urban living. New research published in Nature Climate Change documented the amount of heat leaking out of major cities and how this heat adversely impacts global weather patterns.
Forty percent of the energy produced in the world is consumed by 86 metropolitan areas in the Northern Hemisphere. These cities are located underneath currents in the atmosphere that whisk the heat southwards, changing weather patterns on the other side of the globe.
The effort to refurbish or retrofit metropolitan areas, however, has never been a primary target of environmental advocates. The impetus for so many important big picture fixes—like changing how we produce energy and conserving what little is left of the world’s forests—has submerged the need for the less glamorous but equally important fixes.
Even a new study, one that dwells on the need for triple-pane windows and other retrofits for reducing heat and energy loss in New York City, pushes for a massive conversion to geothermal heat and replacing Manahattan’s underground steam system instead of changing the heating systems of most of the city’s buildings to something more efficient.
The urge to create large eco-friendly new solutions and developments, rather than retrofit what we have, can have adverse effects on the environment. Take the “eco-city” development that the Chinese government built in Tianjin, just east of Beijing. Street lights in this project are solar powered, windmills line its periphery, and its street grid is designed to be walkable. However, in reading about some of the problems that urban planners are having in making the place a true eco-city, one element stands out: the development itself was built on top of wetlands, destroying a precious natural resource for filtering water.
You see this “big thinking” in the agenda-setting political speeches taking place right now. For example, the need to retrofit the heating systems of older apartment buildings was absent from the State of the State speech given by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Instead, the climate focus of his address was an ambitious nine-state cap and trade program for carbon dioxide emissions.
These speeches always trigger an avalanche of advocates and pundits pushing for and commenting on the big picture. After President Barack Obama devoted eight sentences in his inaugural address to the threat of climate change, the drumbeat around his State of the Union speech was tremendous. The question was not so much if he would talk about climate change but what he would do and how would he work around Congress if it chose not to work with him.
The answer was yes, it is a priority, and for this week his critics on the left have been mollified. He even talked about doubling energy productivity, which I can only hope will eventually trickle down to my former homes in New York City.
There are so many aspects of our metropolitan areas that can be more climate-conscious. From green roofs to a more robust system of bike lanes, the federal government can fund many different ways for cities to retrofit their infrastructure and reduce their climate impact.
These efforts take money, however, and the President does need to figure out how to boost spending in these areas—which swims against the current tide of budget cutting and deficit reduction that has flooded our politics lately. Picking this battle, as opposed to ambitious broad strokes of policy, could be far more effective in the long run.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the building sector has the largest potential of any sector for reducing climate change impacts in both developed and developing countries. And the idea is so innovative and remarkable that retrofitting two city blocks in Oslo is a cause for international press coverage.
Figuring out how to retrofit may not be the most glamorous way to reduce emissions, but it should not be overlooked.