Interview with Rohit Aggarwala, NYC Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability

Posted on 02. Nov, 2009 by in Clean Tech, Interviews, Politics

rohit-aggarwalaAs Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability for America’s biggest city, or what locals like to call “the Center of the Universe,” Rohit Aggarwala has one of the most high-profile sustainability positions in government. In 2007, Rohit’s boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, launched PlaNYC, a 25 year plan for the city made up of 127 separate initiatives grouped into six major areas of concern: land, water, transportation, energy, air and climate change. Central to PlaNYC is sustainability and efficiency in land, energy and water use, as well as various plans to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. Rohit spoke with Opportunity Green about PlaNYC, congestion pricing, and why it’s important to reduce NYC’s greenhouse gas emissions when it is already the lowest, per capita, of any city in the nation.

Opportunity Green: How does one become Director of Long-Term Planning for the City of New York?

Rohit Aggarwala: One of the things Mayor Bloomberg likes to do is bring people in from the private sector. I was at Mckinsey, where my specialization was in transportation. The deputy mayor called me to see if I was interested in this. He had a hypothesis that the politics around the greening of transportation are so intense that he thought it was more important to have a transportation person than to have a green person. My background is in efficient transportation systems. I’m not an environmentalist, and have had to learn about greening and sustainability over the last three years on the job.

OG: The Deputy Mayor may have been right about transportation, given the recent controversy over congestion pricing in Manhattan. Can you talk a little about that?

RA: In New York City, one of the most important things to do is to fund the transportation system. Whereas in most places, the question is whether to build a public transportation system, here the consensus is that it works, but needs to be invested in. Fundamental challenge is getting people out of their cars when we know they don’t need to be in their cars. Not quite the same as the rest of the country. In LA for instance, it’s hard to argue that most auto commuters really have a legit transportation alternative.

The mayor still believes that congesting pricing is a good idea. The question is…the mayor’s leadership took it as far as he could take it. Somebody in Albany really has to chose to lead on it. The fact is the MTA still doesn’t have a sustainable source of capital [the MTA was to rely on revenue from congestion pricing for many budget needs]. Last year the MTA reconsidered congestion pricing, but instead imposed a payroll tax, and a taxi trip tax. But these don’t solve prob by any stretch. We have to find another solution, and at the end of the day there are only a handful of choices.

OG: Tell us a little about PlaNYC. What do you consider the most important initiatives in the plan?

RA: The most important initiative is the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan. The problem it addresses is how do you green existing buildings in a systematic way? The fact is in 2030, 85% of buildings we have then we already have today. Then take into account 75-80% of our carbon footprint comes from building energy consumption. The trick is to get people to do things they weren’t already doing. What the mayor proposed, along with the [City Council] speaker, is a set of four bills that we think would reduce New York City’s carbon footprint 4%.

One, a couple of revisions to energy code that would close loopholes, and would mandate that as buildings are renovated, the renovated portions be brought up to energy efficiency standards (the rest of the building would not be effected).

Two, a requirement that every building over 50,000 square feet use EPA benchmarks for determining energy efficiency, and then putting that score on each building’s tax assessment, so people doing due diligence on a building can take energy efficiency into account.

Three, at some point over the next 15 years, all lights in the city would be exchanged, brought up to whatever the then-current energy code is. We wrote it that way because even in the last four years the energy code for lights has become 30% more efficient.

Four, and most controversial, requiring a once a decade energy audit, requiring capital improvements that have a 5 year payback. The capital upgrade is controversial, in part because there is no clearly available financing option for people.

OG: New York City has the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any city in the US [for a variety of reasons — see this article for a discussion]. Why is the country’s most efficient town feel the need to shrink its footprint even more?

RA: First of all, we’re not just doing this for props, we’re doing it because everything makes economic sense. It’s fine that we’re the most efficient, because in that way helping New York City grow is itself an environmental initiative. If we get a million more people to live here, that’s a million less living in a suburban sprawl. Even if we didn’t believe in climate change, everything [in PlaNYC] was necessary anyway. For instance, efficiency becomes a way to free up land by not requiring a power plant. Furthermore, most of the things that emit carbon also emit other air pollution. For instance, a New York City taxi cab is part of our transit system — our taxi cabs drive between 70-90,000 miles a year. It’s a no brainer to convert them to hybrids. You don’t have to believe in climate change to believe in PlaNYC.

OG: Assuming you do believe in climate change, what sort of measures is New York City taking to prepare? Several studies have predicted that the city could be in serious danger of frequent flooding if and when sea levels rise.

RA: Three of the initiatives in PlaNYC are about planning for climate adaptation. We put together a climate change panel based on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), bringing together various experts. The NPCC issued a preliminary report several months ago, and will issue a final report at end of year. What’s important is that scenarios that they identified have been used by a working group of entities that own and operate infrastructure to begin a risk assessment for the city. Both public and private entities. Some of these companies are beginning to incorporate climate change thinking into their capital infrastructure. It’s important to think about these things in a gradual way, just like the process of climate change. For instance, it doesn’t make sense to build a flood wall around a power plant that you know is not going to be in operation 25 years from now. People’s reaction to climate change adaptation can be somewhat panicky. Like any risk, it’s important to sit down, and plan for it in a comprehensive, methodical way.

OG: How did you hear about Opportunity Green?

RA: We heard about Opportunity Green through an event Opportunity Green had here over the summer. I’d like to let the participants know about things were doing here in New York City. Get people thinking about the city as a place where sustainability is happening and as a place to do green business. From other participants, I’d like to learn what sort of cutting edge business plans are in the green space. Innovations in business have to inform innovations in policy, and vice-versa.

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