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.