Lessons in Building a Common Fact Base from NYC Clean Heat

blogimage_NYCCleanHeatIn New York, the energy used in buildings is a major source of pollution, accounting for about 75 percent of the city’s overall greenhouse gas emissions and impacting public health. Air pollutants such as nickel, soot, and sulfur dioxide contribute to an estimated 3,000 deaths annually in New York City, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In 2007, soot emitted by New York City buildings burning residual fuel oil – No. 4 and No. 6 oils – caused more fine particulate pollution than all of the vehicles on the city’s streets combined.

To combat this, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection issued regulations requiring that buildings convert to cleaner fuels from heavy heating oil beginning in July 2012. But because of perceived market hurdles, the deadline for eliminating use of some of these dirty fuels stretched out to 2030. To overcome these barriers, the City of New York, the Environmental Defense Fund, and other partners created the NYC Clean Heat program, which led to one of the fastest and most significant air quality improvements in New York City history. The campaign united action by government, utilities, banks, real estate leaders, and non-profits to help buildings convert their boilers to a range of cleaner options, including natural gas, ultra-low sulfur No. 2 oil, and biodiesel.

NYC Clean Heat led to one of the fastest and most significant air quality improvements in New York City history.

“NYC Clean Heat is a practical, high-impact solution that serves as a model for cities around the world, proving that big environmental gains are possible when government, finance, real estate and advocates join forces to achieve a common goal,” said Andy Darrell, the New York Regional Director of the  Environmental Defense Fund, when we interviewed him for a case study on the initiative. (You can read our case, Returning NYC Air Quality to the Highest in Fifty Years, here.)

Build a Common Fact Base
Andy and the EDF team analyzed the source and extent of the black smoke emanating from buildings across New York City, which prompted EDF to commission a report, “The Bottom of the Barrel”, released in December 2009, exploring precisely how buildings burning residual fuels produced high levels of harmful emissions and the effects of the black smoke on public health. Independently, New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had been conducting an air quality survey called the NYC Community Air Survey (NYCCAS) which released a report around the same time. DOHMH and EDF jointly recognized that the issue of heating oil was the largest factor affecting air quality in New York City. Approximately 10,000 buildings throughout the city were burning No. 4 and No. 6 oils, and the areas with the highest levels of sulfur and soot pollution corresponded to those neighborhoods with buildings burning these environmentally corrosive oils.

These tandem reports led to agreement among these key partners as to the root of the problem, aligning with a key collaboration tactic The Intersector Project Toolkit refers to as Build a Common Fact Base. While key, Building a Common Fact Base can often be problematic in intersector collaborations; partners may have sector-specific biases that influence their determination of what facts are relevant to the issue to be addressed by the collaboration. For example, a non-profit sector partner may contend that facts related to accessibility are most relevant to guiding the collaboration’s understanding of the issue, while a business sector partner may argue that facts related to operational efficiency are most relevant. Because agreement on a common fact base is critical to refining the collaboration’s understanding of the issue and honing the collaboration’s strategy, successful collaborations work to facilitate a process through which partners arrive at consensus on what facts are relevant. Without a common fact base, partners may perceive that one partner’s perception of the issue is dominant. This can leave partners with the perception that the issue is framed and understood by the collaboration in a way that does not accommodate their role in addressing the issue at hand.

(For another illuminating example of this tactic, see our case study “Combating Childhood Obesity in Somerville”.)

In the case of NYC Clean Heat, the common agreement that heating oil — specifically No. 4 and No. 6 oils — was the largest factor affecting air quality in New York City allowed collaboration partners to shape a shared vision of success and implement a collaboration to accomplish that vision. NYC Clean Heat’s collaborative efforts helped deliver dramatic improvements: a 69 percent reduction in sulfur levels, a 35 percent reduction in nickel levels, and a 23 percent reduction in soot levels in the city’s air.

For more on NYC Clean Heat, read our two part blog series on the initiative, Clearing the Air with NYC Clean Heat and The Future of Clean Heat: An intersector initiative.