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Breathing Easier in 2030 and Beyond

by Rich Kassel, Nov 20, 2007
 

(This is the last in a three-part exploration of some key air pollution issues in New York. To read the earlier columns click here and here.)

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Almost a year ago in Queens, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the outlines of his sustainability plan. He presented a great slide show, and one of the highlights came when the mayor contrasted the current state of our air – we fail to meet federal air quality standards for ozone and particulate matter — with his goal of enabling every New Yorker “to breathe the cleanest air of any big city in America.” (Another highlight was seeing the amazing panorama of New York City at the Queens Museum of Art, where the event was held. If you’ve never seen it, you’ve got to go.)

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But what did Bloomberg’s pledge really mean? Air quality has improved in the city over the years, and some of the worst air quality in the nation isn’t in the big cities: California’s Bakersfield, in the San Joaquin Valley, is home to the second-worst particulate pollution and the highest ozone pollution in the country, despite its complete lack of skyscrapers.

Even if the city were to do nothing, the air should keep getting cleaner, thanks to the implementation of federal programs to reduce pollution from cars, trucks and construction and farm equipment.

But one problem with federal programs is that they are very good at reducing pollution from some sources (especially vehicles, since the fleets turn over relatively quickly), but not so good with others, like power plants (thanks to loopholes that allow power plants to be modified without being cleaned up).

An even bigger problem may be that federal programs don’t focus on what happens when you combine millions of pollution sources in the same place, like New York City. In most cases, a new car will be much, much cleaner than the old car it replaces. But if you put 2 million cars on the same island, that island will have a lot of pollution.

HOW WILL PLANYC 2030 IMPROVE OUR AIR?

PlaNYC focuses on particulate pollution because it has the most serious health impacts and because New York, by the administration’s own admission, lags other big cities in programs to control it. According to the mayor’s plan, more than half of the particulate pollution (regulated as “PM2.5,” or particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter; about 1/60th the width of a human hair) we breathe is beyond the city’s reach. It’s governed by federal standards, blows in from states to the west or both. PlaNYC 2030 defines “clean air” in terms of the amount of fine particulate pollution per square mile—a neat metric to figure out how to compare the apples and oranges of pollution in New York City with its smaller brethren. To have the “cleanest air of any big city in America” (currently, Philadelphia and Dallas are the title holders), the officials estimate New York City needs to cut local particulate pollution by 39 percent per square mile.

PlaNYC 2030 includes a basket of strategies to achieve its 39 percent particulate reduction—split between buildings (23 percent) and vehicles (16 percent).

Interestingly, many of these strategies also will help achieve other goals in the plan. For example, implementing the city’s energy and global warming proposals for buildings will cut particulate pollution by 6 percent citywide. Switching to more efficient power plants that burn natural gas or biodiesel blends will add another 17 percent reduction. Together, these steps will hit the city’s 23 percent reduction target for particulate pollution, and play a major role to reduce global warming pollution in the city by 30 percent.

Cleaner Heating Oil

Here’s a simple step in the plan that makes so much sense that it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t happened on its own: reducing the sulfur content in home heating oil from today’s 2,000 parts-per-million to the 500 parts per million that is already used in most construction equipment. This would improve the efficiency and reduce the maintenance needs of the city’s boilers and reduce citywide particulate pollution by 2.5 percent.

Cleaner Transportation

Transportation has its share of win-win ideas too. For example, the city estimates that waiving the city’s sales tax on hybrid cars would reduce global warming pollution by 1 percent and reduce particulate pollution by 3 percent by 2030. This assumes 10 percent of the cars will be hybrids by2030, a pretty conservative assumption. Various elements of the transportation plan – not just congestion pricing in Manhattan but also improving the fuel efficiency of taxis and other for-hire vehicles, and cleaning up diesel trucks and buses -- each add significantly to the total. Of this list, retrofitting or replacing the school buses and sanitation trucks that ply every neighborhood should make a fast, significant difference in community-level air quality.

On the other hand, some of these programs cost significant money and are not under the mayor’s umbrella. For example, it’s a great idea to propose that the Port Authority clean up its ferries, but somebody has to pay the $75,000 to $90,000 per engine to accomplish that. The airports all contribute to local air pollution, but it’s up to the Port Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration to OK any program to cut emissions there. Retrofitting diesel trucks may be the most cost-effective idea in the whole plan: Every dollar of diesel retrofit yields more than $12 in health benefits, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Experience in other states, though, suggests strongly that private trucking firms will not invest without some public funding. California and Texas each have public funds of more than $100 million a year to fund these projects, but a similar fund for New York is not on the political radar screen yet.

MAKING IT HAPPEN

So what’s the bottom line? We can’t eliminate air pollution entirely, so aiming to have the cleanest air of any big city is the right target. PlaNYC is comprehensive, pragmatic and feasible, but implementing it will not be easy. That will require consistent advocacy and attention at every level of government. Some ideas, such as lowering the sulfur levels in home heating oil, are no-brainers but have not happened yet. Others – cleaning up city school buses, for one -- make a lot of sense but require more political will and funding than they ever have had. And, finally, the third set of ideas, including lowering ferry and airport emissions, require political leadership that goes far beyond the city.

PlaNYC 2030 lays out a good roadmap of how to ensure that the city’s air continues to improve. Despite the progress in asthma hospitalizations reported on last month (and thanks to all of you who commented on this piece), New York City kids continue to face asthma rates that can be more than double the national average. The city still fails to meet the federal pollution standards for particulate and ozone pollution. Our work is just beginning.

Want to learn more about the plan? Check out the city’s October 22 status report.

Rich Kassel is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where he focuses on urban air pollution and transportation issues. He also chairs the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional transportation advocacy organization, and is on the boards of the New York League of Conservation Voters and Transportation Alternatives. He blogs on a variety of environmental issues on the NRDC Switchboard at http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/rkassel.  
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