Here’s the story about how a group of green building professionals got together to produce an important report but nearly came unstuck by Superstorm Sandy …

Claire Bonham Carter

At the end of last month, a group of curious green building professionals gathered at the offices of Green Light New York to hear some insights from staff from New York City’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS) and its consultants on the report ‘New York City’s Pathways to Deep Carbon Reductions’. Issued with no fanfare at the very end of 2013, it is the culmination of over a year’s worth of hard draft by the staff of OLTPS and about eight months effort by my team at AECOM and our McKinsey sub-consultants. 

The stealth was due not only to the fact that the outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was indeed practically gone, but because the political implications for the new mayor if the report and its investigation into 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (80x50) could be taken as policy.

The project was funded by NYSERDA as part of its Cleaner Greener Communities Plan back in August 2012 with the aim of finding out if 80x50 was indeed technically possible in a city like New York; and if so, what would it take to get there and what would it cost; and finally, what near-term actions could put the city on the path to get there.

It was a challenging (and fascinating) brief but our team from AECOM, with its understanding and expertise of most of the infrastructure in the city and extensive economic impact experience, and McKinsey, with their infamous marginal carbon abatement cost curve, was probably best placed of any consultants around to help answer the questions. 

The project started well with engaged city staff responding to data requests for our analysis and big brainstorming sessions. We prepared intensely for our first big stakeholder meeting to go through preliminary analysis and ideas in mid November 2012. And then we got a call from OLTPS and much to our dismay we were told, “We are going to cancel the stakeholder meeting. There is a big storm coming.” Indeed there was.

Our project team ‘war room’ was suddenly invaded by refugees from the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whose office had been flooded and was without power

What we could never have planned for was Superstorm Sandy, and a client that, once Sandy had hit, was understandably no longer interested in pontificating about whether 80x50 was possible but was tasked with the very real and urgent job of figuring out how to get gasoline to Manhattan for emergency vehicles and back-up generators (among many other things). Our young client project managers were re-deployed to staff the emergency response centre. And so began for them what was probably a year of nights with five hours of sleep or less.

The change of going from managing a chronic stressor (long-term climate change) to dealing with an acute shock (Sandy) was intense. (From the immediate clean-up, they transitioned to working on the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) report – ‘A greener, more resilient New York’ - the 400+ page document commissioned by mayor Bloomberg that lays out 250 initiatives on how to make New York resilient to the next big storm).

Our project team ‘war room’ at OLTPS was suddenly invaded by refugees from the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whose office had been flooded and was without power, who were now tasked with getting their infrastructure, so vital to the city’s mobility, back up and running. Their interest in providing mode share figures to the McKinsey analysts plummeted.

Somewhat clientless, we at AECOM and McKinsey persevered with our work, albeit at a slower pace given that access to city staff was limited and intermittent and often by email in the early hours of the morning. We finished our work pretty much by April 2013, as our contract came to an end. The detailed analysis on technologies, carbon abatement and costs, and on the potential economic impacts on the city and potential policies to move the city on in the next five years was ready and waiting to be turned into a report. That was something OLTPS staff had to take on given the NYSERDA funding had run out. It took many months - post-publication of the epic SIRR - but finally it was published. 

So after that epic prologue – what does the report actually say? Come back for my next blog in a few days time to find out more …

Claire Bonham-Carter is a principal and director of sustainable development, design and planning at AECOM