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Retrofitting for a Greener Future: The Empire Building Decarbonisation Playbook

Colleen Casimira
October, 2022


Building decarbonisation is critical to reduce carbon emissions and to build a more sustainable world. Discover the environmental, economic, and social benefits of retrofitting tall buildings and learn how to do it, with practical insights and replicable strategies from the Empire Building Playbook.

Buildings contribute hugely to climate change. According to the International Energy Alliance (IEA), they account for approximately a third of the world’s energy use, and that figure continues to rise.

If we are to have any hope of achieving our global climate goals, building decarbonisation is crucial. 

And it is possible, even in historic structures, as demonstrated by the Empire State Building, which has become an icon of energy efficiency since embarking on a ground-breaking retrofit.

In this blog, we delve into the environmental, economic, and social benefits of decarbonisation and share practical insights from the Empire Building Playbook, a guide to decarbonisation in existing buildings, developed by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT) and the Clinton Global Initiative, with initial support from Reos Partners.  

The Empire Building Playbook is already having a significant impact, in New York and beyond. Read on for actionable strategies to help make your building more resilient and comply with carbon mandates. 


“Buildings and the people inside of them are the largest contributors to emissions in the US. In cities like New York, 70% of emissions come from buildings.” Dana Robbins Schneider, Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT)

What is decarbonisation?

Building decarbonisation means reducing or eliminating carbon emissions from the built environment. There are two forms of carbon emitted by buildings:

  • Embodied carbon: the carbon emitted during the manufacture, transportation and installation of construction materials.
  • Operational carbon: carbon emissions from the energy used to power the building’s light, heat, air-conditioning etc. 

Types of Carbon Buieldings

Image source: Carbon Cure.

Why is building decarbonisation important? 

Accumulation of carbon and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere is a key driver of global warming. Buildings contribute over a third of global carbon emissions and it’s much more significant in cities like New York, where around 70% of emissions come from buildings. To reach the Paris Agreement climate goals, this needs to halve by 2030. 

“To play their role in the transition to net zero, buildings must switch from being passive and inefficient energy consumers into active participants in the energy system,” writes analyst Ksenia Petrichenko in an IEA commentary.

When buildings invest in becoming more environmentally friendly it makes an enormous difference. For example, the Empire State Building reduced emissions by 54% and counting through its industry-leading retrofit.


Is building decarbonisation on track?

No. We’re not on track.

The 2022 UNEP GlobalABC report clearly states that the building and construction sector is not on track to achieve decarbonisation by 2050. despite increased levels of investment in more sustainable practices, the sector’s energy consumption and emissions increased in 2021 to above pre-pandemic levels, and operational CO2 emissions from buildings reached an all-time high.


These alarming statistics are corroborated by research published in Nature Communications, which looked at building decarbonisation in 32 countries and found that although current pathways can lead to substantial carbon reductions, it is not enough. 

We need to do more. 

How to accelerate decarbonisation

Cities can lead the transition towards net-zero carbon buildings (ZCBs) and play a pivotal role in achieving global decarbonisation targets, says the World Resources Institute (WRI).

They have identified seven policy pathways as well as 10 practical measures for policymakers to accelerate building decarbonisation, which include: 


Establish and enforce ambitious energy codes for buildings.
  1. Support integrated design approaches that optimise energy efficiency.
  2. Promote deep energy renovation to enhance building performance.
  3. Set an example by decarbonising public buildings.
  4. Drive energy efficiency by providing information that triggers behavioural change.
  5. Facilitate financing for energy efficiency projects.
  6. Ensure easy access to information on the carbon footprint of construction materials.
  7. Develop public procurement policies that incentivise low-carbon materials.
  8. Integrate nature-based solutions into urban planning, buildings, and construction.
  9. Formulate integrated resilience strategies and plans for the built environment.

New York is a good example of a city that is embracing these measures.

The Empire Building Playbook

In New York, decarbonisation efforts are being propelled by policy, funding and collaboration. The Empire Building Playbook: An Owner's Guide to Low Carbon Retrofits is part of the success, providing a replicable process for large buildings, with proven returns on investment. 

Developed by a team from ESRT, NYSERDA and Reos Partners, the Playbook is a virtual resource that outlines a step-by-step process to drive decarbonisation at scale and reduce operational carbon emissions.

It resulted from the Empire Building Challenge in which building owners developed sustainability strategies in line with New York’s ambitious energy policies. NYSERDA provided $50 million in funding to test innovative, green retrofit solutions. 

Collaborative workshops facilitated by Reos Partners allowed key stakeholders to share what they had learned and help create a decarbonisation blueprint for property owners and developers.

Michael Reed of NYSERDA says this collaborative approach was critical: “This is not just a technical or economic challenge. It's a coordination challenge. You need to figure out how to build relationships and a team.”


A whole-system design approach was taken to develop the Playbook explains Reed. “We worked backwards looking at all the elements of the building and how they interacted with one another. We looked for solutions that solved the system challenges.” 

Reos Partners project lead, Jon Walton, said the bigger goal was driving change beyond New York: “NYSERDA saw it could be helpful to the entire system. They have a platform and a highly visible city. If they can figure it out, it becomes a lot easier for others to see that and do something similar.”

It’s being applied in a variety of buildings. “You can use the process for your hospital, school, or multifamily building,” explains Reed. “It shares lessons learned, tools, resources and widely repeatable technologies to copy.” 

To learn more about the development of the Playbook read this interview with Michael Reed. 

Dana Robbins Schneider of ESRT shares some interesting insights about the collaborative work needed to pave the way for climate resilience and a carbon-neutral future in this blog.

“We believe we can be part of the solution and help other buildings follow our lead. Our case studies show what we did, what worked, what didn't work, and why.” Dana Robbins Schneider, Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT)

Key Takeaways

The success of the Empire Building Playbook is rooted in collaboration and commitment from commercial and public sector organisations. including ESRT, NYSERDA, the Clinton Global Initiative and other partners. More can be achieved through collective efforts.

By sharing processes that work, the Playbook enables others to replicate the achievements of the Empire State Building. Replication drives results. 

However, more action is urgently needed to address climate change. Reed believes every building should develop a roadmap to becoming carbon neutral. “Each of us has a role to play. When it comes to buildings, people often think that the power and the decision-making live elsewhere, but it doesn’t, and it can’t because of the scale and urgency of this problem.”

The Playbook serves as a valuable resource to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world. We encourage you to explore it via the links below.

We’re here to help create a brighter future together. If you’d like to learn more or find out how we can help you drive change, please contact us. We’d love to hear from you. 

“The Empire State Building has been a beacon of hope since it was built during the Great Depression. It continues to be that light.” Dana Robbins Schneider, Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT)

Learn more about the Empire Building Playbook and Reos Partners’ involvement below.

Reos content about the project

Explore the Playbook and Knowledge Base

Read more about the initiative in the media

New York Governor Announces Empire Building Playbook


Cover photo by Aaron Burson on Unsplash

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