When New York City passed an aggressive set of greenhouse-gas-limiting laws in April, the buzz was, rightly, about the ambition of America’s biggest city putting a lid on its climate-changing ways. New York state has picked up the banner, too, putting into law this week a downslope to zero carbon emissions by 2050—the only other state to have a goal like that on the books is (you can guess) California. The Oregon legislature is dancing with the idea, too, assuming the governor can coax back to the capitol all the Republican legislators who are literally hiding so they don’t have to vote.
Arguably the most interesting part of the New York City package isn’t the cap. It’s the trade—or, rather, the potential for it. Right now North America has two carbon markets, exchanges where members who emit less than a certain amount of greenhouse gases essentially earn tokens they can sell to gassier emitters. That’s cap-and-trade, a long-touted, little-implemented market approach to fighting climate change. California has a program linked to one in Quebec; after a rocky start, many observers now see it as a qualified success. On the other side of the continent, nine mid-Atlantic states from Maine to Maryland have the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, another qualified success. (There was almost a national cap-and-trade program; in 2010, Washington failed to get it done.)
In those programs, the traders are the industries that emit greenhouse gases—oil companies, power plants, stuff like that. But New York City doesn’t have many of those. Transportation isn’t a huge contributor either. The emitters are the big buildings that make New York look like New York: skyscrapers. So in New York, they’ll be the entities doing the trading, among themselves. The only other city that has ever tried a building-based cap-and-trade is Tokyo, where big buildings constitute 40 percent of total carbon emissions. New York may be next, capping building emissions, monitoring how much electricity and fuel oil they use, and letting those buildings trade emissions credits.
This could be the start of a fundamental rethinking of what’s important in cities, and about how to run them. If the skyscrapers are capped and traded, then they are, in some way, independent political and technical units. Maybe it’s not exactly an arcology, Paolo Soleri’s notion of a dense megacity built into a single precision-built complex. Not yet. But this New York policy does treat the buildings a little bit like one.
Maybe you know the famous line from the architect Le Corbusier, “a house is a machine for living in.” But that grand modernist wasn’t being as reductionist as people usually make him seem. His paragraph goes on: “Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion. An armchair is a machine for sitting in, and so on.” The pieces fit together. I don’t know what kind of machine a city is; the metaphors abound. A living thing! A computer! A brain!
But I’ve started to think that skyscrapers are the most important gears in the machine, or some other kind of fundamental piece—I don’t know, maybe the metaphor falls apart. But these iconic things are both a symbol of urbanness and also a container for everything urban. Manufacturing, living space, retail, storage, display, possibly even food production, maybe even energy production. I’m probably going too far out on a limb here—or maybe it’s a gargoyle, or one of those postmodern fin-things—but in the scant 150 years or so of their existence, skyscrapers have become near irreducible units of city-ness. “It must be tall, every inch of it tall,” wrote the architect Louis Sullivan in 1896 (in the same article where he coined “form follows function,” though it was actually “form ever follows function.”) “The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it.” And the person who designs skyscrapers, Sullivan wrote, should understand “that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord of Nature in his beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man.” No pressure.
New York buildings above a certain size already have to report their energy use once a year. Enforcing the new caps is part of what’s complicated about the implementation of the new laws; it’s certainly an obstacle—though not an insurmountable one—to letting building owners buy and sell emissions credits. Another obstacle is volume. Cities have vastly more buildings than power plants; in New York perhaps as many as 100,000 buildings will be in this hypothetical marketplace. The next largest one, the northeastern states’ RGGI, has only about 500 regulated entities.
Policymakers are also going to have to figure out how to be fair to all the different kinds of buildings that’ll get caught up in the market. “You have vastly different levels of sophistication among the regulated entities,” says Danielle Spiegel-Feld, Executive Director of the Guarini Center on Environmental, Energy and Land Use Law at New York University. “But I’m all in favor of this law and emissions trading, because there is a lot that can be done to reduce energy demand and better align energy demand with our goals for the reform of the grid.” A skyscraper, for example, might be better positioned to balance an energy load across 24 hours, or across seasons—relying on rooftop wind turbines in a windy winter, maybe. Depending on what it’s on top of, maybe a deep foundation is a good way to put in geothermal heating and cooling. The buildings are already engineering marvels; surely they can get even more marvelous.
One of the hopes of the people who run the Urban Green Council, which ended up largely shaping New York’s law, was that the people or entities that owned multiple New York City buildings could use a portfolio effect; the older, less efficient buildings could draft on the emissions market value of the newer, LEED-platinum-ier ones. But none of that exists yet. The council has set out to sort through the details—and then, ideally, export them. “What we figure out in New York, we then are going to take on the road, and we have partners lined up in Singapore, Hong Kong, Toronto, and London,” says John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council. “Cap-and-trade is not new, but applying it in this way to the building sector is very new at the city level, so this becomes an innovative policy tool to drive down carbon emissions.”
My shameful admission: When I first saw the announcement of the Urban Green Council’s plans to work with international partners, I thought that New York buildings would be able to trade emissions credits with not only one another, but with buildings in those other cities, as well. Just as cities have become unofficial signatories to international climate treaties and participants in transnational efforts to reduce atmospheric carbon—albeit with questionable legality—maybe individual skyscrapers could themselves have some kind of sovereignty. After all, it’s their basements that are going to flood when the storms surge and the ice caps melt.
I was wrong about this; a transoceanic skyscraper carbon market isn’t in the works. But it could be. Tokyo’s building-carbon market is linked to the city of Saitama’s … which, OK, is part of the same megalopolitan sprawl, a political distinction rather than a geographic one. But that, and the California-Quebec market, imply that it’s possible. “I’m planning to do some more concrete research into whether an American city has the authority to enter into an agreement with another jurisdiction, an international jurisdiction, to recognize an emissions trading permit,” Spiegel-Feld says. “The economics are in favor. The larger the market, the larger the cost reductions can be. The question is whether cities really have the authority to do that on their own.”
But imagine the possible futures. Developers could insist that architects and engineers design efficiencies into the buildings from the start so that they can budget in emissions credits. Vegetation and solar panels on the surfaces, whole floors that grow food or otherwise sequester carbon, internal water purification systems, wind, geothermal … how about piezoelectric conductive fibers built into the superstructure of a supertall, so that when it flexes in the wind the whole building generates current? Every skyscraper could be its own politically and energetically independent arcology, a place for coworkers and cohousers, like Whittier, Alaska—the whole town in one building because it’s too damn cold to go outside. Smarter writers than me got here first; Soleri’s Arcosanti is one would-be example, but so are the self-contained post-climate-apocalypse arcologies of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, and the more kibbutz-like versions in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. And those buildings could talk to each other and sustain a global environment not just across streets or across town but across the entire planet.
And if they don’t? At least New York will spin up this latest rethinking of the significance of tall buildings. They’re still a stupendous, magnificent opportunity, just like Sullivan said. If armchairs are machines for sitting and houses are machines for living, skyscrapers can be machines for keeping those armchairs and houses—and the people who sit in them and live in them—safe in an increasingly urban, increasingly unpredictable world.