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Report Highlights Path to Lower Emissions

Rendering of building displaying emissions slashing techniques
A study by the Urban Green Council found that New York City can slash its emissions by 90 percent by 2050 through such simple techniques as sealing air leaks and installing additional insulation in buildings. Urban Green Council

A new report shows that New York City can use existing technologies to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent over the next 37 years.

March 5, 2013—Many climate scientists say that in order to ward off the devastating effects of climate change, developed countries will have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 90 percent by 2050. That percentage is so high that many people assume it is either impossible to achieve or that elaborate technologies must first be developed. But a recently released report shows that when it comes to the largest city in the United States, not only is it possible to slash emissions by 90 percent over the next 37 years, but also that the reductions can be accomplished using fairly simple techniques.

Urban Green Council, the New York chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, released the report, entitled 90 by 50, on February 14. The publication outlines the results of a modeling study carried out by Urban Green Council showing that New York City could reduce its emissions by 90 percent by 2050 using technologies that for the most part are widely available. It also calls New York City’s PlaNYC, an initiative aimed at reducing emissions by 30 percent by 2030, a good first step toward addressing climate change, but it says more must be done.

Richard Leigh, P.E., LEED AP, the research director for Urban Green Council, says that the goal of reducing emissions by at least 80 percent can be so overwhelming that people tend instead to set more easily achievable targets, for example, the one in PlaNYC. “We’ve got to reduce emissions, and many people believe that—accept it—but just don’t see how we can possibly do it,” Leigh says. “So we thought it was important to step up to the plate and show that for this great big metropolis it was in fact a technical and economic possibility.”

Seventy-five percent of New York City’s emissions come from its buildings, so the report focuses on upgrading buildings to reduce emissions overall. “People don’t always realize how much buildings impact their lives—their health, the environment—but in dense urban cities, [buildings] are the environment,” says Russell Unger, the executive director of Urban Green Council. He adds that every city has a different profile and that in such cities as Los Angeles transportation accounts for most of the emissions, but in “a place like New York, the story’s all about the buildings.”

Urban Green Council developed eight building models to represent various city structures. The models were designed to initially be as inefficient as the buildings that exist in the city today and to have similar emission levels, Leigh says. The researchers then began improving the models using such common techniques as sealing air leaks, adding insulation, installing sunshades and triple-pane windows, incorporating photovoltaic cells, and installing mini-split-system and ground-source heat pumps and heat recovery ventilation systems. As a result of the upgrades, the buildings’ emissions decreased by 55 to 65 percent, Leigh says.

To reduce their emissions further, the models were connected to electricity sources that do not emit greenhouse gases. “You’ve really reduced your energy load, and then you supply what’s remaining with renewable power. Some of it will be photovoltaics, and the rest of it will be from the grid,” Unger explains. “Right now, our grid is forty percent carbon free in New York City, so you’d have to find ways to make the rest carbon free.” The researchers didn’t examine alternative electricity sources as part of their study, but the report includes a list of possible carbon-free sources, including windmills and nuclear power plants. 

Chart indicating New York City's plan to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2030

New York City has a plan in place to reduce emissions by 30
percent by 2030, but an Urban Green Council report suggests the
city could cut emissions by 90 percent by 2050. Urban Green

While upgrades that help buildings use less energy can save money in the long term, the initial costs can be high. Unger says those costs can be reduced if the equipment is upgraded at the time of its necessary replacement. “There are some places where buildings, to hit these numbers, would need to do retrofits they wouldn’t do otherwise, particularly insulating their walls and sealing within their walls,” Unger says. “But a lot of . . . the equipment will be replaced between now and 2050, so you upgrade it [then].”

In addition to reducing building emissions, New York City would have to cut its transportation emissions to meet the 90 percent goal. The report suggests reducing those emissions in part by reintroducing trollies. “Trollies these days are like buses: they have rubber tires and can go anywhere on the road, but they get their power from a wire overhead,” Leigh says. “If you think that’s an odd technology, go to Boston. They use them throughout the city and throughout Cambridge.” The large number of electric cars expected in the future will be helping matters, and the report assumes that all other vehicles would meet the new federal fuel emission standard, which calls for an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. “We just assume that by 2050 [everyone] would be complying with the 2025 fuel efficiency standard,” Leigh says. “So a lot of our emission savings just come from current law.”

While 90 by 50 offers many suggestions for significantly reducing emissions in New York City, Unger and Leigh say it is by no means the only path to that end. “Our goal is to address some of the malaise out there, the sense that this is so overwhelming that it’s impossible to do,” Unger says. “We hope to just change the general perspective about the possibility of this and also start pointing the way toward what might be involved in doing it.” Unger adds that the issue will require a great deal more study, but he hopes the report gets people talking. “We think that this is, hopefully, going to be changing the dialogue in policy circles and getting people thinking toward where we ultimately want to head,” he says. “We’re showing a path, not the path.”


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