Greening New York City One Billboard and One Activity at a Time
In New York City, there’s a solar-powered billboard in Times Square. Truly. Being as green as it can be.
A recent ABC News article called the effort “a boast and an unintentionally sad reminder of how far the city is from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ambitious plan for a greener city.”
New York is one of our favorite places in the world, but ABC News’s article took the tone of how badly the metropolis wasn’t green, harkening back to Earth Day 2007 when the redoubtable Bloomberg announced PlaNYC “for a greener New York,” impressing a whole lot of people who are more impressed by grandiose ideas than by actual results.
The idea behind PlaNYC, ABC News said, was to “make room for a million new people by 2030 while reducing the city’s carbon footprint.”
There were the usual efforts most big cities make to greenwash their images — hybrid buses and taxis, obnoxious bicycle lanes, energy-conserving roofs, ferries to entice people out of their cars and trees, trees and trees planted everywhere. The Empire State Building was even retrofitted to be more energy-efficient and obtained LEED Gold certification as a result.
Nathanael Greene (a rather serendipitous name), director of renewable energy policy at the National Resources Defense Council, told ABC News that a major component of the effort was actually to “combat soot pollution — a problem that kills more people than handguns do.”
PlaNYC officials are impressed with their achievements so far. “In just four years we’ve built hundreds of acres of new parkland while improving our existing parks,” they say on PlaNYC’s website, without addressing how expending the energy to do that was less carbon-intensive than doing nothing.
“We’ve created or preserved more than 64,000 units of housing,” they say, adding, “We’ve built whole new neighborhoods with access to transit.” This also raises the question, “How exactly is this green?” Just because something is less carbon-intensive than something else doesn’t mean it’s green.
PlaNYC does claim that due to its efforts,it has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent compared with 2005 levels. Not to belittle the progress, but aren’t emissions still rising in the aggregate by the day?
“Tens of thousands of buildings in New York City create more soot than all the cars put together,” according to program activists cited by ABC News, so PlaNYC upgraded 300 buildings to be less sooty, with a few thousand more in line.
All of this is good as long as it is not prohibitively expensive to run. This is the good side of greenwashing — you don’t even need to call it a green initiative. There’s no good reason not to reduce soot from downtown buildings, regardless of global warming or a green agenda.
But there are other aspects of Bloomberg’s grand idea, such as cutting emissions by 30 percent by 2030, that I wouldn’t bet the farm on. And other ideas for lowering Gotham’s carbon footprint were downright evil, such as charging $8 tolls for cars entering Manhattan during peak hours. The idea gladly died.
But if you want to go green in Gotham, there are things you can do. GreeNYC is a site dedicated to just that proposition. It’s filled with such good advice as drinking tap water (“it travels to us from pristine reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains,” the site notes).
Indeed, not many Gothamites know that each day, according to GreeNYC, more than 1 billion gallons of fresh, clean water is delivered from large Upstate reservoirs — some located more than 125 miles from the Big Apple — to the taps of nine million customers throughout the state.
Other GreeNYC tips for how to be greener at home are commonplace: Fill your dishwasher before running it; Stop junk mail; Wash clothes in cold water. Plant a tree (at home?). Move out of New York to the Australian outback and subsist off wild dingoes and rainwater. Okay, I made up that last one, but that will actually reduce your carbon footprint an appreciable amount. Aren’t we serious about being green?
And, then, there are the GreeNYC “Lifestyle Tips” for Manhattanites, such as “Use reusable bottles” when standing at the 59th Street subway station. Use reusable bags. “Buy it used.” Eat organic. Get a library card (?). Recycle. And my favorite: “Use online banking.” This is like the anti-soot project: You don’t need an appreciably green rationale for this one.
Yawn. All of these moves, sorry to say, will have about the same effect on the global carbon tonnage as, well, one solar-powered billboard in Times Square.
We suppose that drinking tap water, using reusable bottles and switching to online banking in New York City collectively has had a scientifically measurable impact on the city’s carbon footprint. Maybe it kept the total carbon tonnage that New York contributed to the global atmosphere down to 23,987,461.87 tons instead of 23,987,461.88 tons or whatever the number is exactly.
But we’re sure they contributed greatly to the self-image of Manhattan’s denizens, who I’m sure are practically living off grubs and sewing their own clothes from (already-dead) animal skins and tree leaves.
At least New York City doesn’t have a huge carbon-intensive green festival. Oh, wait. It does.
Billing itself as “Ten Years As The Nation’s Premier Sustainability Event,” the NYC Green Festival, held this past April, provided directions for how you could make a special trip by car, truck or plane to show how opposed you are to carbon-fuel-based travel.
The inherent contradiction at the very heart of such events is blithely lost on event organizers. “Green Festival, a project of Global Exchange and Green America, is striving to become a zero-waste event,” its organizer says.
Here’s how the event can become a completely, absolutely zero-waste and low-carbon event: Don’t have the event. That way, no one has to travel to the event, throw away plastic bottles at the event, use electricity to tweet about the event and use any non-biodegradable utensils or non-biodegradable purchased items at the event.
Instead, businesses packed all of their exhibition gear onto trucks and drove on carbon-choked freeways to New York City’s Javits Center. And if that’s not enough, there are similar events in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Imagine for 2013, the organizers of NYC Green Festival were to cancel it and erect one — solar-powered — billboard saying, “By Canceling NYC Green Festival 2013, We Saved ___ Tons Of Carbon Emissions.”