The Green Report Card

Instead, it shows that a building rating program is exactly what the city needs to tip residents that change must also come from within their homes. It lights a fire under those who have grown too comfortable with their energy habits, especially during the pandemic that has ushered us all indoors.

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By Jenny Chen

Somebody looking for a palatable dining experience in New York City is likely to go to an A-rated restaurant. Letter grading was inaugurated under a Bloomberg-backed food sanitation program and has engendered among frequent diners that unspoken rule in 2010. Though the grade is mostly a reflection of sanitation in the kitchen, lower ratings tend to rub off into the food and the overall dining experience. Few New Yorkers are familiar with the rubric used by inspectors, leaving the grade’s rationale up to the imagination of the consumer. Regardless of feeble public understanding of the process, New Yorkers respect the work of the health department and the department’s conclusions inordinately influence New York City eating patterns.

Last year, nearly a decade after the introduction of restaurant grading, the New York City Council passed Local Law 95, which extends this letter grade system to all residential buildings that span more than 25,000 square feet. The policy comes as part of the city’s Climate Mobilization Act, a landmark legislative effort dubbed the New York City Green New Deal. These residential letters indicate not the sanitation, but the energy efficiency of buildings based on their Energy Star efficiency score, a one to 100 assessment that relates energy consumption to occupants and building type. All building owners need to collect their energy and water consumption data in a process called benchmarking, and in lieu of new 2019 legislation, owners must now also report their data to the Environmental Protection Agency’s online database to receive a grade. Currently, minor fines are being issued to buildings that are not forward about displaying their ratings, though, in 2024, the city aims to levy larger civil penalties for non-compliance.

The move to extend the city’s letter system to residential and commercial spaces is a push to better position the city to cut its emissions by 40 percent before 2030 through communal self-awareness and transparency. Nearly three-quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions in the city are emitted from buildings and most of those emissions can be tied back to individual usage. The City Council’s reason for endorsing a letter grading system is not far off from why a teacher gives grades in the classroom. Being transparent about a building’s progress will allow residents to feel more ownership in improving their grade and will increase the individual stakes. In principle, having to walk by a failing grade upon entering your residence will encourage you to curb your own energy usage—an environmental guilt trip.

The much-needed push toward the city-wide environmental goal has revealed the failures of our current residential buildings. Looking at data from 50 of New York City’s most well-known buildings—including buildings like the New York Stock Exchange and the Empire State Building—we see that only four of them received the highest grade of an A, and the median rating was a D. Overwhelmingly, the bulk of residential buildings in New York have received failing Energy Star grades, indicating that while we often support green legislation as a progressive city, we do not enact changes on ourselves. This conclusion does not mean we should lose faith in our potential as environmentalists. Instead, it shows that a building rating program is exactly what the city needs to tip residents that change must also come from within their homes. It lights a fire under those who have grown too comfortable with their energy habits, especially during the pandemic that has ushered us all indoors. When we see low ratings in restaurant windows, we change our dining practices, and so when the same rating placards are brandished in our own buildings, New Yorkers will ideally treat their habits with the same urgency.

Stuyvesant implemented a similar rating system for trash stations around the building in an effort to meet the DOE’s guidelines for zero waste. Such recycling stations were given a grade from A to F based on the accuracy of sorting. At the beginning of the program, dividing trash amongst five separate bins was foreign to many of us, who used to view the “trash” as a singular receptacle for all of our unwanted waste. I even questioned the efficacy of leaving the burden of trash sorting up to the students. However, a few semesters after the program’s inception, station letter grades created a consciousness for trash organization. As a consequence of the Stuyvesant rating program, I am now more aware of where my waste goes at home. Self-recognition is exactly what Local Law 95 wants to stimulate, and I believe it is a healthy yet glaring reminder that there is always a need for household reform.

Hopefully in the near future, a residential energy rating below an A will be looked down upon with the same disdain as a less than A-rated restaurant. We will not reach that point, though, with only Instagram infographics and performative activism. Giving each building a publicly displayed rating will force right-minded individuals to seek tangible change instead of just sharing opinions. If we want to reach 40 percent emission reduction by 2030, we need to think green in the home and question our energy consumption. Capitalizing on natural light by keeping window passages unobstructed and by investing in mirrors is an apt substitute for energy-sucking bulbs, and when there is no natural light, shutting off lights as you leave other rooms is a safe energy saver. Also, limiting water consumption where possible, recycling old electronics, and only using high-energy devices when necessary allow for resource conservation and cheaper bills. If we can get As on our report cards, we can get them on our buildings too.