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New York City’s Role in Fighting Climate Change

Superstorm Sandy was just a warning of escalating dangers to come, with the country facing increasing risk of destructive climate events. A panel convened by Mayor Bloomberg projected within decades, events five times as economically damaging as Sandy can be expected if current climate trends continue.

While a city like New York seems especially vulnerable to dangers of flooding and other climate change threats, the flip side is that moving population into higher density urban areas, can play a critical role in stemming that danger as well. As David Owens argued in his book Green Metropolis, “Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, …but in comparison with the rest of America it’s a model of environmental responsibility.” Each person in New York generates just 30 percent of the national average of carbon emissions. Put another way, if the whole nation generated the per-capita greenhouse emissions of New Yorkers, our national production of carbon emissions would drop 70 percent—far below the most radical goals of most advocates around climate change.

The lower energy use in New York City stems from multiple causes, but the primary one is people there drive so much less than anyplace else in the country. As urban analyst Alex Steffens argues, “The most climate-friendly trip is the one we never take in the first place, because what we want is already close.” New York is one of the few places in the country to sustain a real growth in transit use—ridership on buses and subways grew 29 percent between 1996 and 2000, and that growth has continued. Similarly, tall, multistory urban buildings have less exposed exterior surface area, so they retain heat in winter and cool in summer far more effectively than standalone homes or broader, lower buildings based in the suburbs. One study found that a downtown building uses 80 percent less heating fuel than a tract home in the suburbs.

Many energy analysts argue that these energy savings may in fact understate urban contributions to the environment, since using less energy also means less demand (and energy consumption) in producing the energy itself. Urban energy savings creates cascading reductions in energy use all the way down the supply chain. Because urban residents often share amenities – sharing cars, going to gyms, etc. – this also reduces the energy costs going into goods production back to its source as well.

So moving potentially millions of people into New York City can have a real impact on climate change, as suburban living is traded for energy-efficient urban living. Since most driving is not done during commuting, moving New York’s commuters into the city will still drive large energy reductions—and by making the city more affordable, it will ideally compete in attracting population growth with energy gobbling regions like Texas.

Even the more conservative scenario of adding roughly one million people to New York City would reduce carbon gas emissions of that population by 14,948,481 metric tons of greenhouse emissions—or the equivalent of taking 15.5 coal-fired plants offline. With the less conservative housing growth estimates, the energy savings would take offline the equivalent of over 34 coal-fired plants. And if expanding job opportunities from the program increased the growth of market rate housing as well, the energy savings would expand even beyond that.

Related Research Resources

Midcentury (un)Modern: An environmental Analysis of the 1958-73 Manhattan Office Building

Details the catastrophically energy inefficient office buildings of mid-last century and how zoning currently prevents economically viable replacement of those buildings.

Inventory of New York City Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Details carbon emissions in the City, including why NYC residents use less than a third of the energy per capita of the average American.