Climate Action

Daniel Zarrilli on how in the midst of a pandemic we must not lose sight of the climate crisis

Daniel Zarrilli, Chief Climate Policy Advisor and OneNYC Director, NYC Office of the Mayor talks to Climate Action about how in the midst of a pandemic we must not lose sight of the climate crisis.

  • 02 June 2020
  • Rachel Cooper

Amid this health crisis, we cannot lose sight of our looming climate crisis. New York City is prioritizing Green New Deal solutions such as clean energy infrastructure, job creation, and environmental justice. These climate actions are one part of an accelerated economic recovery from the COVID pandemic that will help us ensure a liveable, healthy, and equitable future for the next generation.


Q. Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic offers national governments a unique opportunity to tackle both the global climate and health crises?

A. The COVID-19 pandemic has painfully highlighted the inequality that persists in our country. The ongoing crisis has further exposed the life and death disparities in health outcomes associated with race, class, and the frailty of an economic system which fails to support the vulnerable. These same disparities are already playing out in the climate crisis as well.

This may be our last, yet best chance to set us on an equitable path, to rebuild from the health crisis, prepare for the looming climate crisis and the impacts to public health and well-being. The goal when rebuilding New York City is not to go back to the status quo, but to spur a resilient recovery that confronts deep inequities and will ensure that New York is a stronger and fairer city than ever before.

Q.   How are you divesting the City’s pension funds away from fossil fuel companies and how long do you think it will take?

A.    In 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City would be the first major U.S. city to divest its pension funds from fossil fuels within five years. It is clear to us that divesting is the right thing for the planet and helps to ensure the retirement security of New Yorkers.

The majority of City pension funds are currently on track to have actionable plans to divest from fossil fuel reserve owners by late 2020 and the expectation is that the pension fund boards will be able to adopt a plan and begin execution in 2021. In addition, the City pension fund trustees have committed to doubling their investments in climate solutions such as wind, solar power, energy efficient buildings and more to over $4 billion by 2021.

As many cities begin to rebuild after COVID-19, now it is even more important than ever that financial decisions are made with long-term fiscal resilience in mind. For us, divesting from fossil fuels and investing in climate solutions must be at the heart of the green recovery and Green New Deal. We continue to encourage others to join this movement.

Q.   What commitments have you made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are these realistic targets?

A.    Last year, we released OneNYC 2050, our long-term strategic plan and Green New Deal for New York City. In it, we set the bold target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. To achieve this goal, we need to (1) stop burning fossil fuels, (2) electrify everything, (3) secure 100% clean electricity from all available sources, and (4) take on the fossil fuel industry directly. We are doing this by:

  • Saying no to new fossil fuel infrastructure like the Williams Pipeline
  • Ramping up investment to secure 100% clean electricity from hydropower, solar, and offshore wind
  • Implementing world-leading building retrofit mandates to reduce the energy that is used in the city
  • Divesting from fossil fuels and investing in climate solutions

The City’s COVID-19 response has not swayed us from our long-term vision of fulfilling the promise of the Green New Deal and delivering an economic recovery for New York that is truly equitable in implementing climate solutions.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has stated that climate and environmental justice will be a core component of New York City’s recovery from COVID-19. Earlier this month Mayor de Blasio and more than 30 mayors from around the world signed onto the C40 cities statement of principles to help guide the global recovery and affirm commitments to rebuild “a better, more sustainable and fairer society out of the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.” (The full list of C40 principles is available here.) Joining forces with other C40 mayors will help us ensure that climate change and the interrelated issues of equity and social justice are addressed at a global scale as we work together to rebuild a more equitable world

Q. What do you think will be the long term impacts of COVID-19 on the OneNYC 2050 commitments?

A. While the COVID-19 crisis has brought immense new challenges to our city, New Yorkers faced different odds going into this crisis. Not only that, while we will eventually get past this pandemic, our climate crisis will remain. Our OneNYC 2050 commitments have already taken into account many of the disparities that the health crisis has laid bare in our healthcare system, our infrastructure, and our communities, but we may need to adapt the nature and scale of interventions based on the lessons learned from COVID-19 response and recovery work, especially where inequities have been shown to be so deeply entrenched.

Facing the fact that the harms from COVID-19 have been disproportionately borne by poor and non-white New Yorkers means that we will need to be even more focused on systemic inequities as we work to rebuild our city. A green recovery that prioritizes clean energy, resilient infrastructure, and climate and environmental justice will help accelerate economic recovery while enhancing social equity and would serve to help use ensure the success of our previous OneNYC 2050 commitments.