Buildings: Emissions

In urban environments, buildings are major contributors to climate change. In fact, according to the NYC Greenhouse Gas Inventory of 2016, they are responsible for two-thirds of New York City’s annual emissions. I have been looking at mitigation efforts of both my campus and my apartment. When I have discussed mitigation of university campuses, I have made the distinction between new and old buildings. Changes in construction and renovation stem from three forces: compulsory, top-down change, as mandated by legislation; collective self-motivation, and aspiration.

I live and work in New York City. In the compulsory column, we can now add the city council’s decision (see my June 4th blog), mandating landlords are required to retrofit all buildings larger than 25,000ft2 (2322 m2) with new windows, heating systems, and insulation by 2024. These changes should cut emissions (in comparison to calculations from 2005) by 40% in 2030, and double those cuts by 2050, for a total estimated reduction of about 80%. Landlords face heavy fines if they fail to meet these targets. This basically means that by 2050, the city’s buildings will be almost zero carbon, which is in line with the C40 initiative (June 4th blog) that ex-NYC mayor Bloomberg has coordinated (and partially financed). This is an example where the compulsory mandate and the aspirational mandate coincide (most likely not by accident— NYC is part of the C40).

In case this initiative takes hold, it is not difficult to predict that self-motivation will also play a role: somebody will probably form a well-publicized list that will rank buildings in a similar way to how the Sierra Club ranks campuses, prompting building owners to take action to climb these lists. Not only will doing so reflect good values and the desire to avoid fines, they may well impact the underlying real estate values.

The new NYC law, now known as Local Law 97 for 2019 or “NYC Building Emissions Law” is detailed and complex. You can read the summary at the bottom of the blog or by going here.

As indicated at the bottom of the second page of the summary, the emission limits begin in 2024 and the first compliance report is due in the middle of 2025. This is not a long time for such a transformation. The law is local, so different city governments can make changes before enacting their own versions. Businesses are already raising their voices—some support it and some complain about the costs and the exclusions. The law also extends to educational institutions and residential buildings.

My wife is the president of our co-op building and a strong environmentalist. Her immediate reaction to the law was, “OK, what do we do now?” This is almost the same question that I have raised in the context of the campuses: OK, we know what to do with new buildings—we simply tell the contractors to follow certain rules. But how do we tackle the problem of old buildings?

Let us start by analyzing the carbon emissions from a building—any building, old or new. Many publications, such as Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager, include instructions on how to do so. “Energy-related emissions” describes both direct and indirect forms. Both depend on the type of energy source that we are using. Direct emissions come from fossil fuels such as natural gas, gasoline, and oil. Indirect emissions include the fuels that our power companies are using to produce the electricity that we use. Any non-local power distribution (such as steam) should count as an indirect emission.

It is important for non-scientists to recognize that one can’t directly measure emissions. For direct emissions, one must use the “emission coefficients” that are published by organizations such as EIA (Energy Information Administration), which correlate the amounts of specific fuels that one uses with the standard emissions that result from burning these fuels. I use these coefficients to teach my students how to calculate emissions by using basic principles such as the chemistry of the fuels. Just type EIA into the search box at the top of the blog (click on the little magnifying glass) to see some examples. For indirect emissions, we need to find the fuel composition that our power company is using. My recent set of blogs about electric cars contains some of my best examples of this process (March 12, 19, 26, 2019). Next week’s blog will focus on electricity use.

The best way to save on energy-related emissions is obviously to use less energy. For this, we have to do an energy audit of a building, identify where the energy losses are, and try to minimize them. We can do this through better insulation, changing windows, using more efficient lightning, painting our roofs white or covering them with vegetation, and upgrading to better thermostats as well as energy certified refrigerators and air conditioners.

As usual, if you have the money and you don’t want to bother yourself with any of this, you can farm out the process. Most electric utilities now have the capacity to provide you with carbon-free electricity generated from renewable sources. You can now convert most of your energy use to electricity—this is not the most efficient or cost-effective method but you pay for convenience. It will cost you but as long as the electricity is being produced from renewable energy you will have no problem complying with the emissions mandate.

Below, I end this blog with the City’s two-page summary of the law, including a timeline with the new emissions requirements in NYC.

The Law: Summary of local law 97 NYC, buildings, emissions, law, carbon, urban green, energy, efficiency, efficient, green, timeline, legislation, government, governance

NYC, buildings, emissions, law, carbon, urban green, energy, efficiency, efficient, green, timeline, legislation, government, governance

Meanwhile, here are a few useful links:

Free NYC advisory on how to achieve these targets

NYC’s existing program for multifamily buildings

Handbook for carbon reduction for multifamily buildings

Energy consumption by age of buildings

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Sustainable CUNY Solar + Storage Summit 2019

solar, conference, CUNY, NYC, zero carbon, economy, energy transition, sustainable, sustainability

Over the last few years, the City University of New York has organized several Solar + Storage summits focused on local needs and opportunities to accelerate the local energy transition to a carbon neutral economy. This year, the conference was on June 13th at John Jay College. The recent emphasis, both in the City and State of New York (which I described in previous blogs) to accelerate the transition with specific targets for zero net carbon economies, made such a conference especially timely. I decided to attend to try to identify new opportunities—both for learning and for teaching. I was happy that I did.

The agenda included:

  • Ask the expert booths with representatives from relevant industries
  • Introduction by Tria Case, CUNY Director of Sustainability
  • Keynote by NY Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul
  • Panel discussion about policy issues and institutional commitment by senior executives from Con Edison, New York Power Authority, the US Department of Energy, and the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability
  • Panel discussion on financial risks and values by senior executives from National Grid, NY Green Bank and NYCEEC (a nonprofit finance company that provides loans and alternative financing solutions for clean energy projects)
  • Separate schedules for energy storage and solar energy tracks

The rather blurry opening photograph shows the first panel discussion.

Everything that I learned was relevant on the local level, echoing themes that I have emphasized in the previous blogs—namely, that energy transitions can be effective when employed on multiple levels.

The summit included discussions of smart grids; resiliency and grid distribution; power sharing; and CUNY’s own sustainability efforts. As often happens at such conferences, some of the concepts regarding local initiatives, such as microgrids, were ones that I have previously blogged about (April 29, 2014; May 6, 2014; May 27, 2014; and February 24, 2015)—although most of the time I’ve discussed microgrids it’s been in the context of developing countries. Here is how the conference defined them (In these contexts, PV stands for solar photovoltaics):

Electrical systems that can connect and communicate with the utility grid that are also capable of operating independently using their own power generation are considered microgrids. Single buildings or an entire community can be designed to operate as a microgrid. Microgrid infrastructures often provide emergency power to hospitals, shelters or other critical facilities that need to function during an electrical outage. Microgrids can include conventional distributed generators (i.e., diesel or natural gas gensets), combined heat and power (CHP), renewable energy such as PV, energy storage, or a hybrid combination of technologies. If inverters are used, such as for a resilient PV system, they must be able to switch between grid-interactive mode and microgrid (intentional island) mode in order to operate as a microgrid. For large microgrid systems that include distributed energy resources (DER), a supervisory control system (a system that controls many individual controllers) is typically required to communicate with and coordinate both loads and DER.

Other key issues, such as the “DG Hub,” were new to me; I needed some background:

The NY-Solar Smart Distributed Generation (DG) Hub is a comprehensive effort to develop a strategic pathway to a more resilient distributed energy system in New York that is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the State of New York. This DG Hub fact sheet provides information to installers, utilities, policy makers, and consumers on software communication requirements and capabilities for solar and storage (i.e. resilient PV) and microgrid systems that are capable of islanding for emergency power and providing on-grid services. For information on other aspects of the distributed generation market, please see the companion DG Hub fact sheets on resilient solar economics, policy, hardware, and a glossary of terms at:

I was particularly interested in a joint-published work by NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) and CUNY, which offered a detailed analysis of the effectiveness of solar panel installations in three specific locations in New York. The paper included a quantitative analysis of the installations’ contributions to the resilience of power delivery in these locations. Below is a list of the different models that they have tried to match to the  locations. The emphasis here is on the methodology and what they are trying to do, not on the sites themselves. REopt is a modeling platform to which they try to fit the data:

This report will help managers of city buildings, private building owners and managers, the resilient PV industry, and policymakers to better understand the economic and resiliency benefits of resilient PV. As NYC fortifies its building stock against future storms of increasing severity, resilient PV can play an important role in disaster response and recovery while also supporting city greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and relieving stress to the electric grid from growing power demands.

This analysis used the REopt modeling platform to optimally select and size resilient power options for the sites in the study. Four scenarios were modeled to reflect different priorities and constraints; each scenario was modeled with and without a resiliency revenue stream. The value of resiliency to a site in this analysis is equal to the estimated costs incurred due to grid interruptions. In each case, the resilient PV system was able to capture revenue streams associated with displacing energy purchases from the grid, reducing peak demand charges, and shifting grid-purchased energy from high to low time-of-use cost periods. In all cases, the model found the combination of energy assets that minimized the life cycle cost of energy for the site.

1. Scenario 1: Resilient PV sized for economic savings; no resiliency requirement imposed The model chose from solar and storage resources to size a system that is cost-effective* for the host site.

2. Scenario 2: Resilient PV sized to meet resiliency needs The model chose from solar and storage resources to size a system that supports critical electric loads for short and long outages.

3. Scenario 3: Resilient PV and a generator (hybrid system) sized to meet resiliency needs The model chose from solar, storage, and diesel generator resources to size a hybrid system that supports critical electric loads for short and long outages.

4. Scenario 4: Generator sized to meet resiliency needs The model sized a diesel generator to support critical electric loads for short and long outages.

This is a particularly useful experiment that has the potential to accelerate the transition. I will try to find some examples when I visit Germany this summer (see the June 11th blog for more info about where I am going and why). The conference gave me an opportunity to see some initiatives in action in an urban environment and try to participate in the effort.

Next week, I will end this series of blogs on the energy transition in New York/CUNY by focusing on residential buildings and uses of electricity.

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Multilevel Confrontations with Climate Change: State Legislation

Wherever you live or work there is a very good chance that you are subject to multiple jurisdictions , with laws that you have to abide by. In my case, those include New York City and State, and the US federal government. In addition, I live in an apartment building that has its own rules and regulations, as does the university where I teach. It is not surprising that—by now—all these jurisdictions have policies, rules, and laws that were drafted to address climate change. Starting with the May 28th blog, with one exception (The June 11th blog that focused on D-Day), I have tried to cover my campus’ efforts to place itself in a leadership position in this area. I have described the commitments that Brooklyn College made in 2009, as well as New York City’s recent detailed legislation.

New York State’s work on the issue was invisible until now. On June 20th (last Thursday), this situation changed. Reuters and other publications announced that both chambers of the New York legislation came out with major legislation that put NY at the forefront of global efforts to mitigate climate change through major changes in energy use.

The figure below, taken from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), shows that in the United States, NY State is second only to Washington, D.C. in emitting the least carbon dioxide per person. The main reason is that close to 50% of the state’s residents live in NYC—the largest urban area in the United States—with widely used public transportation, multi-tenant housing, and an economy dominated by non-polluting service economies such as finance.

energy, carbon dioxide, emissions, state, policy, legislation

Nevertheless, in view of the passive position that the US federal government is now taking on the issue, NY State, together with other local governments, decided to take the lead. Below are selected paragraphs from the Reuters publication that describes the new legislation:

“New York lawmakers pass aggressive law to fight climate change”

By: Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York state lawmakers passed early Thursday one of the nation’s most ambitious plans to slow climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. If signed into law, it would make New York the second U.S. state to aim for a carbon-neutral economy, following an executive order signed by then California Governor Jerry Brown last year to make that state carbon neutral by 2045.

The marathon session stretched past 2 a.m. Thursday before the votes were tallied with 104 in favor to 35 against. The New York Assembly’s vote in the state capital Albany followed a Senate vote that passed the measure on Tuesday.

It mandates reducing emissions by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050, and offsetting the remaining 15%, making the state carbon neutral.

New York’s “Climate and Community Protection Act” calls for reducing emissions by 40% by 2030 and using only carbon-free sources such as solar and wind to generate electricity by 2040.

“Jobs created in renewable energy and energy efficiency can’t be outsourced, it’s always local,” said Daniela Lapidous, organizer for NY Renews, a coalition of over 100 environmental groups.

“New York is mostly purchasing fossil fuel products out of state,” she said. “So when we transition to a renewable economy we will be spending New York dollars in New York, creating good local jobs that pay well and are meant to be accessible to women, communities of color, low-income communities.”

I looked into the original legislation and managed to find a detailed summary. It is very complex. One of the reasons for that complexity is that many legislators now insist upon inclusion of socioeconomic provisions within the objectives of new legislature. I will quote one paragraph that directly relates to the main objective, as Reuters reported it:

75-0107. Statewide greenhouse gas emissions limits.

   36   1. No later than six months after the effective date of this article,

37 the department shall determine what the statewide greenhouse gas emis-

38 sions level was in 1990, and, pursuant to rules and regulations promul-

39 gated after at least one public hearing, establish a statewide green-

40 house gas emissions limit as a percentage of 1990 emissions, for the

41 following years as follows:

42   a. 2020: 100% of 1990 emissions.

43   b. 2025: 75% of 1990 emissions.

44   c. 2030: 50% of 1990 emissions.

45   d. 2035: 40% of 1990 emissions.

46   e. 2040: 30% of 1990 emissions.

47   f. 2045: 20% of 1990 emissions.

48   g. 2050: 0% of 1990 emissions.

49   2. In order to ensure the most accurate determination feasible, the

50 department shall utilize the best available scientific, technological,

51 and economic information on greenhouse gas emissions and consult with

52 the council, stakeholders, and the public in order to ensure that all

53 emissions are accurately reflected in its determination of 1990 emis-

54 sions levels.

It’s an ambitious plan. The same day, The New York Times printed a few more details:

The plan would phase out gasoline-powered cars

The measure does not envision a day when individual car owners will be required to turn in their old vehicles, proponents say. Rather, new regulations would force automakers to accelerate the trend toward producing more and cheaper electric vehicles.

Now, electric car ownership is almost exclusively for single-family homeowners who can plug in cars at home. Charging stations would be needed, for instance, all over New York City, which plans to experiment with putting plugs on existing streetlamps. Customers would plug in cords with built-in meters to charge them for the power.

It would mean no oil- and gas-burning heaters and boilers

“The furnace in an average New Yorker’s home will no longer be fossil fuel fired,” said Peter Iwanowicz, the executive director of Environmental Advocates, a lobbying group. “It will probably be electric.”

The transformation would most likely start with regulations on new construction, backed by incentives for homeowners and landlords to retrofit existing heating systems, experts said.

The easiest way to abide by the new guidelines would be to convert as many energy activities as possible to be electrically powered (such as heating, hot water, electric cars, etc.). However, as I mentioned earlier this year in the context of electric cars (March 12April 2, 2019), energy-wise that is not the most efficient way to go through the transition. It also requires that the entire power industry reach carbon neutrality at the same time.

Almost as soon as it was announced, people objected to this new piece of state legislation. The main objection is also the most obvious one — who will pay for all of this? The politically easy answer is that businesses will pay. However, many businesses have warned that they will simply move to another state to avoid stricter policies. These kinds of threats are becoming increasingly prevalent as the federal government tries to shift the responsibility back onto states, counties, and cities. It opens new migration mechanisms that could potentially sharpen the divide between blue states that are trying to actively deal with climate change and red states that are passively watching it happen. I will expand on this in future blogs.

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Campus Transition into Sustainability Teaching Laboratory

My May 28th blog discussed the Sierra Club’s ranking of university campuses’ sustainability conversions. I also included the organization’s methodology. Later, in my June 4th blog, I suggested that campuses could convert this transitional process into a teaching moment — perhaps even a teaching laboratory. I didn’t, however, list the Sierra Club’s scoring keys anywhere. If a campus decides to put serious efforts into climbing the ranks, it must first know the details of what is involved — including the metrics. The list of these is incredibly long, but I decided that it was essential to have the full set here for reference. Several of the blogs that follow will also depend on this list. Below, I have extracted the 10 highest-scoring activities, along with some suggestions for how campuses should proceed in order to improve their scores in these categories. I then include the full list:


The GHG Protocol Corporate Standard classifies a company’s GHG emissions into three ‘scopes’. Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from owned or controlled sources. Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy. Scope 3 emissions are all indirect emissions (not included in scope 2) that occur in the value chain of the reporting company, including both upstream and downstream emissions.

Colleges should provide a detailed accounting of their scope 1–3 emissions (it’s not necessary to include external evaluations). This makes it easier for the Sierra Club to identify and credit any changes.

This is self-explanatory.

This can be done building by building, starting with the oldest buildings.

There was a June 13th conference on the use of solar energy on CUNY campuses. I will expand on this issue next week with some details about the conference.

An institution must initially get a detailed accounting of its waste and then identify (and follow through with) actions to reduce it.

Same process as above.

Since most projects are done by outside contractors, the contracts should include this requirement.

For educational institutions this is one of the most important topics that will define campuses as working sustainability laboratories.

This is self-explanatory but is at least relatively easy in NYC where we can contact the power company to request that they deliver at least a certain portion of our electricity from renewable sources.

This is by far the highest number of available points and it calls for major action — not just pledges or promises!!

Here’s the full set:

Scoring Key 2016

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D-Day Anniversary: 75 Years Later and What I Mean by Self-Inflicted Genocide

A photo from a meeting of WWII liberators and survivors
(I am in the middle of the back row)

The 75th anniversary of D-Day was on Thursday. The celebration was not about me. It was about the soldiers that took part, with many of them giving their lives to save the world from the Nazi horrors. However, I am part of the picture.

In the commemoration of the 75-year anniversary of this momentous event, President Trump quoted President Roosevelt’s prayer at the start of the invasion. Here is how The New York Times describes it:

Mr. Trump appeared most presidential in his appearance at Portsmouth, on the coast of southern England, one of the key embarkation points for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France.

The president spoke for less than two minutes, reading an excerpt from a prayer that Roosevelt delivered in a radio address on the evening of the invasion.

“Almighty God,” he read, “our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. They will need thy blessings. For the enemy is strong.”

And: “Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, thy heroic servants, into thy kingdom.”

I emphasized a few words because I represent a fraction of the group they describe.

Here’s my history, from my very first blog post (April 22, 2012):

I was born in Warsaw, Poland in May, 1939. The first three years of my life were spent in the Warsaw Ghetto, as the Nazis developed their plans for systematic Jewish genocide. Before the destruction of the Ghetto in 1943, I was hidden for a time on the Aryan side by a family friend, but a Nazi “deal” to provide foreign papers to escape Poland resulted in my mother bringing me back to the Ghetto. Then a Nazi double-cross sent the remnants of my family not to safety in Palestine, but to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as possible pawns in exchange for German prisoners of war. As the war was nearing an end, in April 1945, we were put on a train headed to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp further from the front lines. American tank commanders with the 743rd tank battalion of the American 30th Division intercepted our train near Magdeburg in Germany, liberating nearly 2500 prisoners. Within the year, my mother and I began building new lives in Palestine.

Twelve years ago, I located the units of the American army that participated in my liberation. Since then, I have tried to attend as many liberator/survivor events as I could. The press has covered many of these; you can find the stories on the internet. The opening photograph is from one of the more recent meetings. I included the relevant link below it.

It will not be a great surprise to anybody that all of us in the photograph look old. I was 6 years old when I was liberated and the soldiers were all in their twenties. We — both survivors and liberators — are the last generation alive that lived through these events. Both groups have been speaking of their experiences to schools and interested listeners, trying to do everything in our power to prevent more genocides such as the ones that took place in WWII. Genocides come in various shades and forms so it requires full awareness to forestall recurrences of what happened there.

When Frank Towers (standing third from the right), an officer during the liberation event, passed away (at age 99), a Dutch friend who used to attend some of these events suggested we build a monument to the survivors and liberators in the German town where the train was intercepted (Farsleben). I have joined forces with the people of Farsleben, along with a few second-generation survivors and liberators who now live in the US and Israel, to try to help him bring the idea to fruition.

Over the summer, my wife and I will travel to Farsleben. We will interact with students, teachers, and adults as we try to facilitate getting the monument ready for a formal dedication on April 2020: the 75th anniversary of the Liberation.

I teach students about Physics and climate change at Brooklyn College as my day-to-day job. I also do research on climate change. At every possible opportunity, I try to connect climate change to the Holocaust, describing anthropogenic climate change as a self-inflicted genocide. You can see my detailed reasoning in the first three posts on this blog, from 2012.

This summer I will also be working on a talk that I am scheduled to give in November about possible ways for the world to reach an agreement to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Many approaches in this area are mathematically based on game theory. One of the strongest groups doing work in this area is from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). The game theory approach to solve climate change can be very complex. One of the reasons for that complexity is that players need to agree to play collectively and not isolate themselves as free riders. Free riders benefit from global mitigation caused by limits on carbon emissions but also get to continue using the relatively low-cost fossil fuels that are causing those emissions. Free riding also tends to be contagious (the US is now a free rider). Humans can be difficult to predict and harder to shift. It seems to me that game theory or any other mathematical approach does not work very well in a system that involves more intricate human motivations. What we really need are political solutions that will include all of us. That means that such solutions will be compromises similar to that achieved in Paris at the end of 2015, from which United States is presently in the process of withdrawing.

Potsdam is about 90 minutes’ drive from Farsleben. D-Day reminds us that the WWII victory also needed a political solution. The aftermath of WWII almost assured that any repeat would involve nuclear weapons with the capacity for a global genocide. The Potsdam Conference between July 12 and August 2, 1945 attempted to reach a peaceful settlement.

Back to the D-Day memorial. The President of the United States received a great reception from the British Royal Family. At an official banquet at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II toasted him with the following remark:

As we face the new challenges of the 21st century, the anniversary of D-Day reminds us of all that our countries have achieved together. After the shared sacrifices of the Second World War, Britain and the United States worked with other allies to build an assembly of international institutions to ensure that the horrors of conflict would never be repeated. While the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures: nations working together to safeguard a hard-won peace.

Later, Prince Charles spoke at length with President Trump about climate change. Such institutional, international cooperation to prevent future global disaster caused by climate change is badly needed now. Unfortunately, the 90-minute effort on the part of the heir to the British crown to deliver this point to our president didn’t go far in influencing him to change his stance on climate change or other threats to humanity.

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Campus Sustainability – NYC and CUNY

Sustainability in NYC

In mid-April, the New York City Council passed an incredibly important piece of legislation regarding our city’s sustainability, calling for landlords to upgrade the built environment:

New York City Passes Historic Climate Legislation

The Climate Mobilization Act lays the groundwork for New York City’s own Green New Deal.

By Alexander C. Kaufman

The legislation sets emissions caps for various types of buildings over 25,000 square feet; buildings produce nearly 70% of the city’s emissions. It sets steep fines if landlords miss the targets. Starting in 2024, the bill requires landlords to retrofit buildings with new windows, heating systems and insulation that would cut emissions by 40% in 2030, and double the cuts by 2050.

“This legislation will radically change the energy footprint of the built environment and will pay off in the long run with energy costs expected to rise and new business opportunities that will be generated by this forward thinking and radical policy,” said Timur Dogan, an architect and building scientist at Cornell University.

The Climate Mobilization Act’s other components include a bill that orders the city to complete a study over the next two years on the feasibility of closing all 24 oil- and gas-burning power plants in city limits and replacing them with renewables and batteries. Another that establishes a renewable energy loan program. Two more that require certain buildings to cover roofs with plants, solar panels, small wind turbines or a mix of the three. And a final bill that tweaks the city’s building code to make it easier to build wind turbines.

The cost to landlords is high. The mayor’s office estimated to The New York Times that the total cost of upgrades needed to meet the new requirements would hit $4 billion.

It reads a lot like a NYC-specific Green New Deal (GND) (see the February 19, 2019 blog). This is appropriate, given that New York’s own Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the congresswoman people most identify with the GND (cosponsored by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass). The legislation sounds great but we have lived through these kinds of initiatives before; some regulations are more effective than others. I used to teach a course at my school that focused on New York City’s efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. For example, this is from a class file from Spring 2010:

PlaNYC Energy Initiatives

On Earth Day, 2007, Mayor Bloomberg released plaNYC, a sustainability plan for the City’s future. The plan is designed to lower our collective carbon footprint while also compensating for population growth and improving the city as a whole. Here we address its fourteen-point plan for energy and analyze its progress thus far. 

Sustainability at CUNY

I work within the City University of New York (CUNY) — the largest urban university in the US. Following Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement, CUNY formed a sustainability task force:

The CUNY Sustainability Project was given institutional clarity and impetus through the acceptance by Chancellor Goldstein on June 6, 2007 of Mayor Bloomberg’s ’30 in10′ challenge. This challenge will motivate New York City’s public and private universities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2017. CUNY is committed to investing the resources necessary to construct, retrofit and maintain more sustainable and green facilities.

You can follow the university’s progress in this area here.

While a number of UC schools feature in the Sierra Club’s list of the country’s 200 most sustainable schools (see last week’s blog), CUNY campuses are nowhere to be found. In fact, the top NYC school on the list is St. John’s University at #50, with Columbia University coming in at #90.

We (New York and CUNY) can and should do much better. To my knowledge, nobody has ever tried to use schools as laboratories where they could correlate economics with energy transition. In theory, in addition to converting the campus itself into an environmentally friendly institution, a school could train its graduates to perform such conversion jobs —thus enhancing their qualifications for satisfying employment once they leave school.

I teach physics in my school; it’s an experimental science:

experimental science

  1. Diligent inquiry or examination in seeking facts or principles; laborious or continued search after truth; as, researches of human wisdom; to research a topic in the library; medical research.
  2. Systematic observation of phenomena for the purpose of learning new facts or testing the application of theories to known facts; — also called scientific research. This is the research part of the phrase “research and development” (R&D).

    Note: The distinctive characteristic of scientific research is the maintenance of records and careful control or observation of conditions under which the phenomena are studied so that others will be able to reproduce the observations. When the person conducting the research varies the conditions beforehand in order to test directly the effects of changing conditions on the results of the observation, such investigation is called experimental research or experimentation or experimental science; it is often conducted in a laboratory. If the investigation is conducted with a view to obtaining information directly useful in producing objects with commercial or practical utility, the research is called applied research. Investigation conducted for the primary purpose of discovering new facts about natural phenomena, or to elaborate or test theories about natural phenomena, is called basic research or fundamental research. Research in fields such as astronomy, in which the phenomena to be observed cannot be controlled by the experimenter, is called observational research. Epidemiological research is a type of observational research in which the researcher applies statistical methods to analyse patterns of occurrence of disease and its association with other phenomena within a population, with a view to understanding the origins or mode of transmission of the disease.

One of the biggest disciplines of experimental science is natural science, i.e. using the scientific method (try typing that into the blog’s search box) to study nature. Examples include physics, chemistry, earth science, biology, etc. The terminology was largely introduced to distinguish them from social sciences, which use the scientific method to study human behavior. As a rule, one cannot properly teach natural sciences without laboratory components where we test almost everything that we learn.

So where do we place anthropogenic climate change in our studies? The term describes man-made changes to the physical environment and reflects on how, in turn, those changes impact humanity. Many university campuses are now affiliated with laboratory schools or demonstration schools where they train future teachers and conduct educational experimentation and research. Can we devise laboratory experiences/experiments regarding climate change on a matching scale?

Michael Bloomberg, after his three terms as mayor of NYC, started a new environmental enterprise focused on climate change. The C40 initiative currently boasts the participation of 94 cities (NYC included), which together make up 25% of the global GDP. The initiative’s latest commitment is that new buildings will conform to Net Zero Carbon by 2030 and old buildings will show net zero carbon by 2050. These are clear objectives on which one can measure progress.

The changeover to a zero-carbon environment is often expensive. Many schools, including mine, only find the necessary resources when they construct new buildings. For old buildings the conversion is even pricier (hence the delay in the target date under the C40 aspirations). Almost all the buildings in most campuses are old. Sustainable buildings and teaching laboratories each need resources for both initial costs and maintenance. We have very little experience with conversion of old buildings into more sustainable ones but we have a much richer history of working with teaching laboratories.

The initial funding for the laboratories usually comes with the original budget for the building — that is one of the main reasons that science buildings are so expensive. Once we start using it, a lab needs periodic maintenance — mainly for updating, replacing, and repairing equipment. A lot of the capital for these projects — at least at my school — comes from the students’ technology fee.

At CUNY, tuition for full-time in-state students is $3,135/semester; technology fees are $125/semester.

In 2003, the CUNY Board of Trustees adopted legislation requiring students to pay an annual technology fee. The revenues generated by the fee are to be used by the colleges to enhance opportunities for students to use current technology in their academic studies and to acquire the knowledge and skills that the modern, information-centered world requires.

Each year, a committee composed of administrators, faculty and students, chaired by the Provost, solicits suggestions from the college community and prepares a plan for the use of the technology fee funds. The plan is submitted to the Chancellor for approval. Brooklyn College’s advanced use of technology enables the committee to both pursue more advanced goals and concentrate on projects that build on mature foundations.

Approved projects are expected to further the college’s goals of: expanding student access to computing resources, improving computer-based instruction, improving support for students using college computers, improving student services, and using technology to enrich student life on campus. These goals should now [sic] only make college life more enjoyable, but also provide Brooklyn College students with an edge as they enter the job market or move on to postgraduate studies.

The committee’s plan is typically cast as a formatted spreadsheet indicating categories and examples of projects. The projects listed in the spreadsheet represent the college’s priorities, but until it is known exactly how much money will be available, the college cannot determine whether or not all of them will be funded. You can view the budget plans by clicking the links below.

My Proposal

Given NYC’s new legislation, I think it is time for CUNY to update its approach to the sustainability of its infrastructure.

CUNY, sustainable, sustainability, old, new, carbon neutral, zero carbon, renovation, conversion, building

Figure 1 – Age of CUNY buildings

Figure 1 shows the age distribution of CUNY’s buildings. According to the department of energy, the average lifetime of a building made of concrete, steel, and wood is about 70 years. So, by these data, the majority of the buildings will shortly exceed their lifetimes and need to be replaced.

I propose the addition of a sustainability fee to match the technology fee, so we can start to accumulate the resources for these replacements. Majors such as Urban Sustainability and Economic Management will identify and target facilities for replacement and will collaborate with the administration in providing the technical know-how that will be required. In addition to the new fee, these projects will be funded using a mix of private donations and state budgetary allotments.

Students will issue periodic, quantitative reports about progress made in the process of converting the old buildings to zero-carbon buildings. The 20-year target difference between conversion of new and old buildings should be more than enough time for the process to be feasible.

In the next blog I will continue to add some more details about my proposed sustainability conversion.

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Campus Sustainability – National

solar, sustainable, sustainability, university

Contractors install solar panels atop Colorado State University’s Braiden Hall.

About three weeks ago, shortly after spring began, The New York Times ran a short article about how local leaders in many communities are approaching adaptation to the major increase in flooding. Two short paragraphs capture the essence of the issue:

As Mayor Frank Klipsch of Davenport starts that conversation — a wide-ranging discussion of upstream levee heights, riverfront development and whether the city should install permanent flood protection — there is one topic he sees little benefit in raising: human-caused climate change.

“We know there’s something going on, so how do we come together and deal with that?” said Mr. Klipsch, a two-term mayor who said taking a stance on climate change could be “divisive.” “Let’s not try to label it. Let’s not try to politicize it. It’s just a matter of something is changing.

Mr. Klipsch’s determination not to include human-caused climate change in addressing the need for permanent flood protection is problematic. The term is not just a matter of politics—refusing to utilize it limits people’s focus to mitigating the immediate issues and ignores the need for any attempts at long term solutions. The “finger in the dike” idiom illustrated below seems appropriate.

dike, finger, cartoon, dam, Mike LuckovichPolitics aside, my attention shifted quickly to my own professional setting: university campuses. These are places where it has not yet been deemed necessary to avoid all mention of climate change.

This week I will examine the general issue of various university campuses’ attempts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Next week I’ll shift my attention to more familiar territory of my own campus with some suggestions about how to accelerate our progress in this area.

A piece in the online magazine Yale Environment 360 acknowledges the gap between colleges’ ambitions and achievements in sustainability. “On College Campuses signs of Progress on Renewable Energy” opens with the following short abstract:

U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly deploying solar arrays and other forms of renewable energy. Yet most institutions have a long way to go if they are to meet their goal of being carbon neutral in the coming decades.

The article follows up with some examples, including Arizona State University and Colorado State University (the latter is featured in the opening photograph of this blog). Below are two key paragraphs about ASU’s efforts and those of a few other top campuses:

The Memorial Union’s PowerParasol is just one installation within Arizona State’s expansive network of 88 solar systems, which now produces 41,000 megawatt hours annually — enough to power nearly 4,000 average U.S. homes. Arizona State’s solar capacity stands second among American universities, behind only rival University of Arizona, and it’s about to grow further: The state’s largest electric utility is building an off-site facility that will provide the campus with another 65,000 megawatt hours per year, knocking 10 percent from its carbon footprint. That will go a long way toward helping Arizona State create a carbon-neutral campus by 2025, a target it aims to reach not only by expanding its solar capacity, but also by improving its refrigeration and waste management practices, making its buildings more efficient, and purchasing carbon offsets.

Not every campus can exploit the relentless Arizona sun, of course; nonetheless, university sustainability is moving further into the mainstream with every passing year. In 2007, the first installment of the Sierra Club’s rankings was dominated by small private colleges known for their progressive bent, like Oberlin in Ohio and Vermont’s Middlebury. Only two of the top 10 schools — the University of California system and Pennsylvania State University — were public institutions. By contrast, half of this year’s top 10 is composed of public schools, including major institutions like Arizona State and the University of Connecticut. The Climate Leadership Network, a coalition of more than 650 schools that have vowed to achieve carbon neutrality on self-determined timetables, counts institutions such as Montana State, Mississippi State, and the University of Washington among its members.

It’s great to see public schools gaining ground and making progress in carbon neutrality. The top efforts in this area are reflected in the Sierra Club’s sustainability rankings. The section below details the organization’s revised methodology:

We then processed the raw data (obtained from the schools) through a custom-built formula that scored the schools across 64 questions, with each of those questions given a specific numeric value on a 1,000-point scale. You can find our scoring key here.

This year, our scoring methodology was updated to reflect trends in campus sustainability. In past years, we awarded partial points on many questions even if schools reported no progress in that area. This was something of a hangover from the earliest iterations of our rankings systems, when we felt that it was important to reward schools simply for conducting audits and surveys of their sustainability operations. Since we launched the Cools Schools rankings 10 years ago, higher education has come a long way in terms of incorporating sustainability values. At this point, it’s no longer sufficient for schools to simply survey their operations and curricula; we, along with our 2.4 million members and supporters, are expecting measurable progress.

Our scoring key is a reflection of the broader priorities of the Sierra Club. For example, we award a significant percentage of points in the areas of campus energy use, transportation, and fossil fuel divestment because the Sierra Club believes that progress in these sectors is essential for addressing the climate crisis. While our ranking is fair, transparent, and accurate, we make no claim that it is the ultimate arbiter of campus sustainability.

Our results show that while many universities are making admirable progress, no school has yet attained complete sustainability. In 2016, the top-rated university scored 783.41 out of a possible 1,000 points, proving that, in higher education as in the rest of society, there is much room for improvement.

The United States has more than 2,000 four-year colleges and universities; we acknowledge that many schools that care about the environment don’t appear on Sierra’s list.

That said, our rankings can serve as a guide for prospective students, current students, administrators, and alumni to compare colleges’ commitments to environmentalism. It also serves to spur healthy competition among schools, raise environmental standards on campus, and publicly reward the institutions that work hard to protect the planet.

Tangible items funded by the Technology Fee will be identified by special labels or plaques. The proposed expenditures are described below and the entire college community is encouraged to review the plan and provide feedback.

In other words, they’ve stopped grading on a curve and no one is getting an A (the highest score was 78% or a C+). The Sierra Club list contains more than 200 schools; my school is not among them. Next blog I will narrow my emphasis from the national picture to focus on my own campus.

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Graduation: Congrats to My Students!

Classes ended this week. By the time that I post this blog, my students’ final exams will also be history. The last four guest blogs were written by students in my Physics and Society course—a research-based course that I offer periodically to advanced undergraduate physics students. Some of those who authored these guest blogs will be graduating at the end of this month. I encouraged my students to comment on each other’s blogs; if you haven’t read these posts yet, I urge you to do so as soon as you can and add your comments to the mix.

The issues that the guest bloggers addressed are important and complex; as befitted physics students, I encouraged them to be quantitative. They presented their work in two distinct forums. On the school’s Science Day, science faculty quizzed them on everything even remotely related to their topics. Also, since the projects are society-related, and society consists of more than just science faculty—to put it mildly—the guest blogs were meant to address the same topics using more accessible language for the general public. You can be the judge of these attempts; please let us know how they fared.

Graduation is also a time to think about societal issues on every scale. My school is probably the place where I have the highest capacity to contribute to change . In 2007 Brooklyn College made a commitment, together with other schools and public institutions, to enhance our environmental stewardship in specific areas. One of these pledges was to reduce our energy use by 30% (compared to 2007) in 10 years. Many of these commitments became dormant over time as administrations on the state, city, and even campus levels changed. This year, 12 years after the initiative started, voices on campus are demanding we reprioritize these commitments.

How To Determine Where We Focus Our Actions

Two indicators that are central to these efforts, and are directly related to climate change, are energy use and carbon footprints. There are a few important questions that emerge in our attempts to resuscitate these commitments. First, of course, if we want to make progress in these areas, we have to know how to measure them. Many of the calculations are based on “emission factors,” a relatively muddled term.

Fortunately, there are helpful resources. To find out where you stand personally you can Google carbon footprint measurements. Among other entries, you will find an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) calculator. It asks you:

Home Energy:

  1. What is your zip code; how many people are in your household?
  2. What’s your household’s primary heating source?
  3. Enter your average monthly utility bill or other data for each source of energy your household uses.
    1. Natural Gas (in dollars, thousand cubic feet, or Therms)
    2. Electricity (in dollars or kWh); % of electricity that is green
    3. Fuel Oil (in dollars or gallons)
    4. Propane (in dollars or gallons)

Transportation: How many cars do you have? How many miles do you travel? What is your gas consumption?

Waste: What do you recycle (aluminum and steel cans, plastic, glass, newspaper, magazines)?

After you fill in the list, the site provides you with your carbon footprint (weight of carbon dioxide that you emit) and compares it to an average among those with the same household size in your zip code. In addition, it provides a series of suggestions for saving energy and calculates the resulting reduction in both your carbon footprint and the price that you pay for utilities.

The first questions that many ask: How does the EPA calculate your carbon footprint? What data sources does it use (census data, etc.) to establish a baseline?

You can reference the original resources on the website for the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and access a table of carbon coefficients as shown below:

We can use this data to calculate the results for Brooklyn College. The follow up question is: how does the EIA calculate its own table? For that we need some understanding of chemistry.

When I ask my general education climate change students how many of them have ever experienced any type of chemistry education, I usually get numbers lower than 50%. This is a problem because chemistry in its most basic form is a language that explains a lot of what happens in the natural world around us. If you are unfamiliar with any language you will have problems deciphering the content it conveys. Accordingly, I spend time discussing the language of physics with my class and making sure that my students can work with it.

Next week I will expand upon some of the other issues that stand in the way of our collective effort to mitigate climate change.

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Guest Blog: How Income Inequality Correlates with CO2 Emissions and What We Can Do About It

Hello readers! This week’s guest blog is from Benjamin K, Quinn Downes, and Michael Guerin. Combined, we carry degrees in the fields of physics, chemistry, and biology. Through this blog post, we hope to spread information on the correlation between income inequality and carbon emissions. Although both of these factors have been extensively studied separately from one another, we utilize known information to relate the two aspects. More importantly, however, we include information on how changes in income inequality can be used to decrease carbon emissions.

Recent developments in the world’s environmental, political, and economic atmospheres have made climate change and the global widening income gap dominant topics of discussion. More of the world’s wealth is coming into the possession of fewer people while the majority of the population possesses increasingly less wealth. It is, therefore, unsurprising that there have been numerous studies done to explore how income distribution affects carbon emissions. For example, total CO2 emissions of a nation are examined alongside lognormal income distribution statistics. In this study, we analyzed data to determine if economic inequality prevalence throughout a country leads to increased carbon dioxide release as a result of excessive transport. We focused our analysis on transportation. Examining this data along with global Gini coefficient statistics, the empirical results of analysis indicate a positive correlation between a nation’s Gini coefficient and the anthropogenic CO2 emissions from all its methods of transportation. With these results, policymakers will have more insight, enabling them to make informed decisions when approaching these matters. Particularly, these findings will guide policymakers to realize that increased income equality is a possible remedy for high CO₂ emissions.

Environmental Kuznets Curve

However, to first understand the reasons as to why this analysis was necessary, we will take a look at previous models describing how GDP per capita affected the environment. In particular, during the mid-twentieth century, Simon Kuznets proposed a hypothesis stating that as economic development occurs, there is a spike in environmental degradation. As the economy continues to develop, environmental degradation reaches a peak, after which it starts to decrease. Kuznets theorized that economic inequality of a society also follows the same relation, whereby initial economic development will cause a spike in economic inequality.

kuznets curve, graph, economy, economics, environmental kuznets curve, turning point, industrial economy, GDP, environmental degradationFigure 1 – Graphical representation of the relationship between a nation’s GDP per capita and its respective level of environmental degradation. This relationship demonstrates the Kuznets curve, commonly referred to as the environmental Kuznets curve when applied to this area of study.1

To put this in context, let’s consider a hypothetical undeveloped country. All of a sudden, this country is given the opportunity to invest in a business such as hospitality, because a lot of foreigners want to visit. As expected, only people with a large amount of capital can initially invest to create hotels and resorts, which they will eventually profit from. Because of this occurrence, economic inequality initially increases, since the rich will be getting richer. As more labor is needed, more people from rural areas will continue to flock towards urbanizing areas where these new hotels are located, thus keeping wages low and further increasing economic inequality. However, Kuznets continued to propose, as such industrialization proceeds, more workers will earn the area’s average income, thus decreasing economic inequality.

Unfortunately, even Kuznets himself realized that the data used for his correlation was very fragile and susceptible to error. For example, his analysis did not correlate with the economic development of most countries observed to this day. Additionally, the majority of his data compared differences in inequality and economic development of countries in Latin America, which have a record of high economic inequality, even when compared to countries of similar economic development.2 Ultimately, an abundance of such misrepresentations was able to undermine the validity of the Kuznets curve.

We now know that carbon dioxide is the main anthropogenic greenhouse gas and is believed to be responsible for the majority of global warming.3 When considering carbon dioxide as a “scale” for environmental degradation, it is incorrect to assume that carbon emissions will decrease as an economy succeeds. Due to aforementioned reasons, our study instead focuses on how other statistics can be used to more accurately correlate income inequality and carbon emissions.

Lorenz Curve

Lognormal distribution of income and the Lorenz Curve are two statistical forms used to quantify income inequality. This curve is a graphical representation of the distribution of income in an economy. The Gini coefficient is a ratio with a value between 0 (0%) and 1 (100%) that we can get from the Lorenz Curve. It can be used as a measurement of the equality of income within a population, with a value of zero expressing perfect income equality, and a value of one expressing maximum income inequality. In other words, in an economy in which every citizen earned exactly the same income, the Gini coefficient would have a value of 0. Alternatively, in an economy in which one citizen collected the entirety of the income, the Gini coefficient would have a value of 1.

The Gini coefficient should not be mistaken for a measurement of a nation’s income. It is not uncommon for high-income and low-income countries to have similar Gini values. For example, in 2016, Turkey and the United States had a Gini coefficient of roughly 0.40, yet Turkey’s GDP per capita was approximately half of that in the US.

income inequality, Lorenz, GDP, income, income distribution, equality, Gini coefficient

Figure 2 – Graphical representation of the relationship between a nation’s income and its GDP per capita. This relationship demonstrates a Lorenz curve and can be used to study a nation’s level of economic equality.4

This number is a representation of a ratio of the areas on the Lorenz curve, with the numerator of this ratio being the area between the actual income distribution and the perfect equality line, and the denominator being the area under the perfect equality line. The calculations for the Gini coefficient are fairly simple. If we call the region between the line of perfect equality and the Lorenz curve A, and the area below the Lorenz curve B, then the Gini coefficient can be expressed as A/(A+B). Knowing that the value of A+B is 0.5, we can express the Gini coefficient as 2A, or 1-2B. This can show us graphically that the closer the actual distribution is to perfect equality, the smaller the the inequality gap, A, and the smaller the Gini coefficient.

Data Analysis

There are many factors that affect a country’s carbon emissions. Larger countries obviously emit more carbon than smaller countries; technological advancements can lower the carbon emissions of wealthier countries while industrialization raises those of developing nations. Carbon is also emitted from many sources like cattle, electricity generation, and our focus here: transportation. This includes domestic aviation, domestic navigation, road, rail, and pipeline transport but we are not counting international aviation or international marine bunkers. To even the playing field in the data as much as possible, we plotted the percent of carbon emissions that came from the use of fuel for transportation for each country5 versus the distribution of income inequality to see if there was any significant, observable trend. This was done using the income inequality and emissions percentages per country for each year to eliminate time as a variable in consideration.

income inequality, income distribution, CO2 emissions, lognormal distribution

Figure 3 – Graph of the effect of income inequality on carbon emissions

From this graph we can see that there is a positive trend, meaning that there is an effect of income inequality on carbon emissions, globally. The R² value of 0.192 means that about one fifth of the variation in the emissions can be explained by the income distribution. This shows that income inequality has a definite effect on carbon emissions in a country.

Intra-Country Income Inequality Changes Versus Carbon Emission

income inequality, GDP per capita, carbon emissions 

Figure 4 – Graph of how GDP of a country affects the relationship between income inequality and per capita carbon emissions6

Countries with higher GDP per capita are shown to have increased carbon emissions as well. The graph on the left represents countries in the 55th percentile (top line) and 45th percentile (bottom line) of GDP per capita. The graph clearly shows that with the higher GDP per capita there are also higher CO₂ emissions. The U shape of the graph also tells us that with high inequality, carbon emissions can be reduced by making the income distribution more equal, but that after a certain point making income distribution more equal will have the opposite effect.

In the right graph above, the solid line is for the countries with the highest GDP per capita while the dashed line is for countries with the lowest GDP per capita. This graph has been normalized so that they have the same average, so as to be easier to compare. It clearly shows that for higher GDP per capita countries, the turning point of carbon emissions tends towards higher income inequality while countries with lower GDP per capita will have lower inequality turning points.

In conclusion, this information demonstrates that higher income inequality is correlated with higher carbon emissions. However, with the goal of lowering carbon emissions, we cannot assume that lowering income inequality will accomplish this task. Rather, it is more favorable for countries with high income inequality to lower that gap country-wide, in order to see the greatest decrease in carbon emissions. If a country with already low income inequality were to lower their income inequality even further, an increase in carbon emissions is likely to arise. For this reason, we suggest that policy makers should only focus on lowering income inequality in high income-unequal nations if their goal is to observe a decrease in carbon emission.


  1. Pettinger. (2017, September 11). Economics Help. Retrieved from
  2. Moffatt, M. (2019, April 10). Understanding Kuznets Curve: The Basis for Trickle-Down Theory. Retrieved from ThoughtCo:
  3. Ravallion, M. (2000). Carbon Emissions and Income Inequality. Oxford Economic Papers , 651-669. Retrieved from
  4. Agarwal, P. (2019, April 25). Intelligent Economist. Retrieved from
  5. The World Bank Group. (2015). CO2 emissions from transport (% of total fuel combustion). Retrieved from
  6. Grunewald, N., Klasen, S., Martinez-Zarzoso, I., & Muris, C. (2017). The Trade-off Between Income Inequality and Carbon Dioxide Emissions. Retrieved from 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.06.034
  7. Bourguignon, A. (2003). The growth elasticity of poverty reduction: explaining heterogeneity across countries and time periods. Inequality and growth: Theory and policy implications , 3-26.
  8. Klasen, S. (2008). Economic growth and poverty reduction: measurement issues using income and non-income indicators. World Development , 36, 420-424.
  9. The World Bank Group. (2015). GINI index (World Bank estimate). Retrieved from
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Guest Blog: How is Carbon Affecting Energy Intensity in the US?

Hello to everybody, we are the guest bloggers Amged Haimed, Junfeng Lu, and Haosheng Chen. We are all undergraduate students majoring in physics. Under the guidance of Micha Tomkiewicz, PhD, we have been able to use our backgrounds and experiences to better understand the relationships between carbon, GDP, and energy intensity, along with how to use energy more efficiently to produce improved economic effects from each energy unit.

Our topic here is carbon and energy intensities in the US, so first of all, we will give you some definitions and descriptions. Energy intensity is one of the most commonly used indicators for comparing energy efficiency in different countries and regions, given that it reflects the economic benefits of energy use. The two most frequently used methods for calculating energy intensity are the energy consumed per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) and the energy consumed per unit of output value. The output value used by the latter is highly unstable due to changes in market prices. Therefore, unless otherwise specified, we are using energy intensity to refer to energy consumption per unit of GDP.

Of course, since we are limiting our study to the US, we can skip the next step, which would otherwise be assessing the PPP. In international comparisons, GDP is often converted according to purchasing power parity (PPP) and the calculation results can differ from those found using the market exchange rate method. Although we are not using it now, PPP can be a very clear way to show the relationship between a country’s economy and energy.

Nowadays, there is a common refrain that in order to save our world, we need to use more renewable energy sources that either produce less carbon than traditional fossil fuels or no carbon at all. These alternatives include solar, wind, hydroelectric, and nuclear energy. We already know that burning coal, gas, wood, and even natural gas will release carbon dioxide.

Carbon intensity refers to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP. The level of carbon intensity does not indicate the level of efficiency. In general, carbon intensity indicators decline as technology advances and the economy grows. The intensity of carbon emissions depends on the carbon emission coefficient of fossil energy, the structure of fossil energy, and the proportion of fossil energy in total energy consumption.

Data Collection

Carbon dioxide represents air pollution and the greenhouse effect; at the same time, it also reflects the energy consumption levels of a country or region. Presently, fossil fuels that produce large amounts of carbon dioxide are our main source of energy. Therefore, the more energy we use, the more carbon dioxide we produce. The energy generated is consumed and used for economic development in the states. The economic situation for each state will be presented in GDP. GDP reflects the contributions of both carbon emissions and energy consumption as they relate to the region. The greater the demand for carbon and energy in a state, the higher its GDP will be raised; the consumption of energy is proportional to the GDP.

However, this does not mean that the state that releases the most carbon in its energy production  and energy use will necessarily have the highest GDP. While the use of energy can help increase GDP, it is not the only factor. A state’s economy will be affected by many elements, such as cross-regional trade.

Energy intensity is based on energy consumption and GDP, which represents the efficiency of energy use; it is the ratio of energy consumption to GDP of each state. Energy consumption and GDP are both variables in energy intensity; any change in either one can affect the net result. In this case, however, we are focusing on energy consumption as the primary influencing factor.

US, state, emissions, energy emissions, CO2, per capita, 2016, GDP

Figure 1 – State carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption per capita in each state, 2016

From Figure 1, higher carbon emissions in states correspond to higher energy consumption.

US, state, rank, energy consumption, energy consumption, per capita, 2016, GDP

 Figure 2 – GDP and total energy consumption per capita in each state, 2016

In Figure 2, some states’ GDPs will change along with their energy consumption. Other states have stable GDPs and are not subject to such changes.

US, state, 2016, rank, estimate, energy, energy consumption, per capita, energy intensity

Figure 3 – Energy intensity and energy consumption estimates per capita in each state, 2016

Figure 3 shows the aforementioned states’ changes in energy consumption and how that has affected their energy intensity.

US, graph, state, GDP, energy intensity

Figure 4 – Energy intensity and GDP in each state, 2016

In Figure 4, fluctuations in energy intensity in most states follow changes in state GDP.



Texas, energy, energy consumption, residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, graph

Figure 5 – Breakup of Texas’ energy consumption 

Texas consumes more than half of its energy in industrial production. Indeed, Texas produces most of the country’s technical industrial products. Most notably, the majority of students in the US use graphing calculators from the state. These products from Texas are sold around the world. The lucrative profit from this sector has become the most important component of Texas’ GDP.


 California, state, US, energy, energy consumption, residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, graph

Figure 6 – Breakup of California’s energy consumption

Figure 6 clearly shows that transportation accounts for about 40% of California’s energy consumption. As the largest transportation hub in the western United States, a sizeable number of sea freighters and planes land in California every day. Many internationally traded goods—both incoming and outgoing—ship through the state’s transportation centers. Unlike Texas, which is a purely industrial production state, California has an immense number of commercial operations. Because its economy is primarily based on massive cargo operations, California’s carbon and energy use is proportional to its GDP.

New York

New York, US, state, energy, energy consumption, residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, graph

Figure 7 – Breakup of New York’s energy consumption 

In Figure 7, New York is a high energy intensity state. It balances this usage between housing, business, and transportation, but uses relatively little in industrial production. The ubiquitous advertising screens and neon lights on Broadway consume huge amounts of energy both day and night. In addition, due to the dense population of New York, a large number of household appliances, along with air conditioning and winter heating also consume a lot of energy. The high population also drives the development of an ever-larger transportation system, whose convenience facilitates people’s lives. All of these elements work together, pushing up the state’s energy intensity because it also boosts New York’s GDP.


Our analysis, along with the various graphs, shows how different states’ carbon use impacts their energy intensity. When more carbon is used, the energy consumption will be higher, because the energy produced will be consumed. The consumed energy will also drive the growth of a state’s GDP, but that does not necessarily mean that high GDP is equal to high energy consumption. Energy intensity refers to the comprehensive efficient utilization of regional energy: that is, the ratio of regional energy consumption to GDP. Higher energy intensity in states represents high energy efficiency and high economic efficiency. In other words, the use of carbon will directly or indirectly affect changes in the state’s energy intensity.


  1. Energy intensity. (n.d.). In University of Calgary Energy Education Encyclopedia. Retrieved from
  2. Deviren, Seyma Akkaya & Deviren, Bayram. (Available online 8 February 2016). The relationship between carbon dioxide emission and economic growth: Hierarchical structure methods. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, volume 451 Retrieved from
  3. Table C13. Energy Consumption Estimates per Capita by End-Use Sector, Ranked by State, 2016. Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.). Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved from
  4. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions by State, 2005-2016. Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.) Energy Information Administration (EIA). Retrieved from
  5. Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.). Energy Information Administration (EIA)   Retrieved from
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