What New York City Would Look Like Buried In Its Own Carbon Emissions

Imagine if carbon wasn’t a formless gas, but rather a solid ball. We’d be forced to deal with our emissions problem much faster, because look at what would happen to New York as the carbon piled up.

One of the many reasons why people fail to acknowledge the seriousness of greenhouse gas emissions is that they’re invisible. You can’t see carbon dioxide piling up on the street; you can only see the disasters that happen in the wake of climate change. A project from Carbon Visuals and the Environmental Defense Fund imbues emissions with a sense of physicality by showing what it would look like if New York City was literally covered in its CO2 emissions (depicted in the video below as blue bubbles).

Carbon Visuals came up with the visuals by looking at carbon emissions data from 2010, published by the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. That data tells us that the city emitted 54,349,650 metric tons of carbon dioxide during the year—meaning 1.72 tons of CO2 per second were released. As Carbon Visuals explains, "At standard pressure and 59° F 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, we’d see a new bubble pop up every 0.58 seconds.

Here, we can see a street-level view of emissions as they seemingly bounce on top of cabs.

These are the emissions from a single hour (6,204 spheres).

After a year, things really start to pile up. There are 54,349,650 spheres, resembling a mammoth pyramid that overshadows the NYC skyline.

Should this scare you? Sure, but New York already cut down its emissions in 2010 by 12% compared to 2006 emissions. The city is also working to slash emissions 30% by 2017. As Yale e360 points out, the city is a model of environmental responsibility compared to most other areas in the U.S. As of 2009, the metro NYC area emitted 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases per person annually, which is 30% less than the U.S. average. And according to the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability report, NYC is responsible for fewer emissions than even "green" cities like San Francisco.

Cities are responsible for 70% of all emissions worldwide, though, so there is still plenty of room for improvement—and not just in NYC. Even though it’s not so tangible, all cities are currently engulfed in that giant pyramid. It might be time to dig ourselves out.

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  • EcoAdvocate

    What this fails to recognize is that the carbon emission of suburban sprawl, including those who are "off the grid" but continue to drive to the city. The tremendous amounts of energy and infrastructure to allow the suburbs to be possible is subsidized by tax-payers/utility customers.

  • Karl Broberg

    Should have shown it as solid CO2, (dry ice), bit stupid showing it in this way, If i used all the carbon dioxide i breathed out and filled balloons with it my flat would get pretty hard to navigate pretty quickly. I'm all for cutting CO2 emissions, also for cutting down on pollution full stop! Its not just carbon thats the issue, there are other pollutants too! Even if you just worry about greenhouse gases then there is a huge list of molecules which act in a similar way to CO2 in the atmosphere, basically anything that is IR active thus has a dipolar moment, such as CO2, water, methane, nitrous oxide, a bunch of halocarbons

  • bpnjensen

    Karl, the reason why we worry about carbon dioxide compared to those others dipolar molecules is that Carbon Dioxide is (at present) the only one that is not approximately steady-state in the atmosphere from a concentration perpsective.  We are not creating any more water, nitorus oxide is a very tiny component compared to the entire atmosphere, and methane has only just begin to exude from the melting tundra - but CO2 is now, and has been, released by the geologically rapid burning of fossil fuel, fuel that Nature spent hundreds of millions of years putitng in cold storage. 

    The Greenhouse effect is the result of many gases, including the ones you mentioned, water vapor being by far the most important.  It keeps the planet at a toasty temperature so that we can all live.  Its mass is responsible for around 95% of the heat capture we experience.  Methane, CO2 and other stake up the slack.

    So why is CO2 so important, then?  Well, if natural CO2 provides us with, say, 1% of our warming above absolute zero, that's 1% of 300 degrees Kelvin - or 3 degrees celcius.  Lose all of it, and we'd literally be 3 degrees cooler on average globally, all other things being equal.

    In the last 150 years or so, the CO2 component has doubled, about 100% due to human activity. No other gaseous component has seen this kind of increase.  That means that, roughly, the effect of CO2 on the atmospheric temprature has also about doubled, with everything else being about the same.  That's another 3 degrees of heating, once the atmosphere and ocean and crust equilibrate their temps.  And of course, that 3 degrees is a climatological game-changer.

    My math may be a little off, but its the right ballpark, and one can get the idea.

    That's why the CO2 is so important.  Methane may become more critical as massive amounts of this more potent GHG escape from the crust - but for now, CO2 is the 800-pound gorilla, and is damaging enough all by itself.

  • Calipers

    Come visit southern California where you actually can see it.  Or rather not see the giant San Bernardino mountains behind it.  It’s really gross.

  • Wouter

    This actually makes a lot of sense. If you look into scientific papers you can see that we, humans,  are causing an increase of CO2. This also leads to an  increase in temperature which leads to a rising sea level. This is because the density of water is lower at higher temperatures. Furthermore the ice of greenland is melting which will increase the amount of water in the oceans. 

    If you look at the history, yes earth itself is also able to create massive amounts of carbondioxide but this increase in CO2 nowadays is our fault. Why are so many people ignoring that?

  • G.mann

    "Imagine if carbon wasn’t a formless gas, "Carbon is not a formless gas. It is not even a gas in most cases!  please stop using carbonto mean CO2

  • Bob Cronos

    Imagine if carbon wasn’t a formless gas, but rather a solid ball of Unicorns. We’d
    be forced to deal with our emissions problem much faster, because look
    at what would happen to New York as the Unicorns piled up.

  • srk

    Well, this is dumb. Per-capita NYC has the lowest emissions in the country. So it's kind of odd to pick on NYC. Why not do your goofy visualization in some suburbs where the real problem can be found.

  • kgelner

    Would it still look like that if the many rats of NYC ate carbon balls at the same rate trees and other vegetation consume carbon?

    Thanks for the scaremongering.

  • Someguyin831

    This is retarded.  Never mind that nature creates carbon emissions that go far beyond what mankind can create.  This is taking a miniscule problem and making is look more ominous than it really is.

  • westerner

    Incredible, the lengths some of you climate change deniers will go to live in an illusion.