If NY Was Buried Under Its Carbon Emissions

If NY Was Buried Under Its Carbon Emissions

During his time in office, Mayor Rudolph Giluliani was often credited with cleaning up New York, quite literally. His war on petty crime targeted litter, which has quite noticeably declined in the city which only a decade ago was known for its sidewalks strewn in garbage.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is also calling on a cleanup of New York, but rather than focusing on the visually assaulting problem of litter, he’s focused on air. More specifically he’s setting out to reduce the city’s carbon emissions. The Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability has now released a study that looks at just how much carbon dioxide escapes into the Big Apple’s air each day.

And while the numbers tell a compelling story, one of the largest challenges to addressing carbon emissions is that unlike litter, we can't see the formless gas. If instead our emissions took a physical form – say a solid ball – we’d be forced to deal with the problem and fast.

Understanding this reality, Carbon Visuals and the Environmental Defense Fund have depicted New York’s emissions, showing us what the city would look like if CO2 was something tangible – the city itself quickly disappears under a mountain of emissions (visualized by very large blue bubbles).

The images are based on 2010 emissions of 54 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or 1.72 tons of CO2 per second. Carbon Visuals explains that at standard pressure “a metric ton of carbon dioxide gas would fill a sphere 33 feet across (density of CO₂ = 1.87 kg/m³).” So if CO2 actually emerged from polluting sources as giant blue bubbles, a new bubble would pop up 0.58 seconds.

This is the street-level view of 33’ spheres of carbon dioxide gas, popping up at a rate of one every 0.58 seconds.

After just an hour, the bubbles would form a pile about half the height of the Empire State building. After a day, the bubbles would almost completely cover the building and its surrounding area. Finally, after a year, Manhattan would be buried under a gigantic pile.

A single hour's emissions from New York City: 6,204 one-metric-ton spheres

A year's carbon dioxide emissions from New York City: 54,349,650 one-metric-ton spheres

What’s more, New York is hardly the worst offender of our cities. The city’s emissions in 2010 were 12 percent lower than 2006 rates, and targets have been set to further slash emissions by 30 percent in the next five years. As of 2009, 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases were emitted per New Yorker annually, about 30 percent less than the average American. Perhaps most surprising, the city is responsible for fewer emissions than “green” cities such as San Francisco.

That said, New York’s focus on reducing emissions is commendable, and something that other cities should be looking to do. Worldwide, cities are responsible for 70 percent of all emissions; we are rapidly burying our most populous areas under an invisible pyramid of emissions. Now the challenge before our municipal governments: How can digging ourselves out of a problem we can’t see make it to the top of the political agenda? It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly possible – something that New York is starting to show.

December 10, 2012