New York consumes more fossil fuels in its residential and commercial buildings than any other state in the country, and New York City’s buildings are responsible for a significant portion of that consumption. In New York City, burning fuels for space and water heating accounts for nearly 40 percent of the city’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. On top of worsening the climate crisis, fuel combustion in homes and businesses also contributes considerably to poor air quality, directly resulting in adverse health impacts and premature deaths — particularly among communities of color.
Although the city enacted Local Law 97 in 2019 to reduce emissions in large existing buildings, it currently has no plans to stop constructing new buildings that burn fossil fuels. A new effort aims to fix that, led by NYC Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel and supported by local organizations including WE ACT for Environmental Justice, New York Public Interest Research Group and New York Communities for Change. The groups aim to pass legislation through the city council by the end of June to prohibit gas hookups in new buildings and gut renovations in New York City and push for a healthy all-electric future.
In this blog post, we’ll break down the health impacts of burning fuels in New York City buildings — and how a shift to all-electric buildings can make for a cleaner, healthier, more equitable city.
Harmful pollutants from New York City buildings
When space and water heating appliances such as furnaces and boilers burn gas or oil to produce heat, they emit several dangerous pollutants. These include fine particulate matter (PM2.5), oxides of nitrogen and sulfur (NOx and SOx), volatile organic compounds and ammonia. These pollutants can cause asthma attacks, hospitalizations and even premature death.
Health impacts from combustion pollution
A new study released this month, "A Decade of the U.S. Energy Mix Transitioning Away from Coal: Historical Reconstruction of the Reductions in the Public Health Burden of Energy," found that pollution from fuel combustion in residential and commercial buildings in New York led to an estimated 1,940 premature deaths and totaled $21.7 billion in health impacts in 2017 (the most recent available data). Based on this data, New York tops the list in terms of premature deaths and health impacts from fuel combustion in buildings, followed by Pennsylvania, California, Illinois and New Jersey. Additional analysis from Jonathan Buonocore, the study’s lead author, and RMI found that New York City accounted for most of these impacts, with 1,114 premature deaths and $12.5 billion in health impact costs, compared to 826 premature deaths and $9.2 billion in the rest of the state combined.
Furthermore, these figures are likely underestimates, as they do not include the costs associated with other health impacts beyond premature death, including lost workdays, emergency room visits and asthma attacks.
A hot spot for NOx pollution
New York is also the worst offender in the country when it comes to NOx emissions from residential and commercial buildings — a distinction driven primarily by combustion emissions in New York City buildings. NOx emissions are harmful on their own, but they also lead to secondary PM2.5 formation and react with atmospheric compounds to create ozone, the primary ingredient in smog.
Due to its respiratory health effects, ozone is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but the ozone levels in New York City exceed EPA limits, as shown in the maps below. New York City’s buildings bear a disproportionate responsibility for this pollution, as they generate twice as much NOx pollution as the city’s light-duty passenger vehicles and seven times as much as its power plants. Addressing building pollution is therefore crucial for health and air quality throughout the region.
Disproportionate exposure for communities of color
Although the link between building air pollution and health impacts is clear, the effects are not equally distributed among the general population. Another recent study found that in the New York City metropolitan area, communities of color are disproportionately exposed to PM2.5 emissions associated with residential gas combustion. In fact, communities of color are exposed to 17 percent more PM2.5 than the population average. Black New Yorkers specifically face 32 percent higher exposure. The racial and ethnic disparity in PM2.5 exposure highlights the need to safeguard the health of New York City’s marginalized communities and further underscores the need to move toward all-electric buildings in the city.
All-electric new construction: An important step
By eliminating additional emissions, an all-electric new construction mandate such as the one proposed for New York City would help to mitigate the negative health and air quality impacts associated with burning fuels in buildings.
The New York advocates’ campaign to electrify new construction and gut renovations also makes financial sense. By building all-electric homes and businesses, developers and homeowners avoid the costs of gas piping and separate appliances for heating and cooling, because heat pumps provide both. An RMI analysis found that over 15 years, the net present cost of a new, all-electric single-family home in New York City was $6,800 cheaper than a new mixed-fuel home using gas for heating, hot water and cooking.
The technological solutions exist today to clean up New York City’s building stock. Any delay in requiring all-electric new buildings will mean more costly retrofits and continued health impacts for New Yorkers down the road. The climate imperative, air pollution and health impacts make the clear case for electrifying New York City’s building stock. And there’s no better place to get going than building all-electric from the start.