NYC Achieves Greenhouse Gas Reductions, But Not With Transportation

New York made impressive reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions between 2005 and 2009. To meet these reduction goals, however, much more needs to be done to reduce transportation emissions. Image: PlaNYC.
PlaNYC set the target of reducing annual transportation emissions 6.1 million tons by 2030. So far, the city is not on pace to reach that goal. Image: PlaNYC

The Bloomberg administration released its annual greenhouse gas inventory last week [PDF], presenting some great environmental news: The city’s annual greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 12.9 percent between 2005 and 2009. But inside the report is a worrisome statistic for sustainable transportation advocates. Barely any of that decrease is attributable to a greener transportation system. In fact, greenhouse gas emissions from private cars actually increased by 1.86 percent over those four years.

The persistence of NYC transportation emissions again calls to mind the state legislature’s failure to pass the centerpiece of PlaNYC’s transportation component — congestion pricing. It’s also a reminder of the major citywide reforms that the administration could still enact, like putting a stop to the proliferation of off-street parking.

In total, the inventory shows New York City reducing its carbon emissions from 56.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to 49.3 million. Only a small fraction of that reduction came from transportation, however: 359,000 metric tons. The bulk of that change came from improvements in the transit system: huge reductions were posted in emissions from diesel buses and in the amount of electricity used by the subways and commuter rail. There have also been large reductions in the emissions generated by transporting solid waste, due to a shift from trucking to rail.

In fact, the amount of carbon emissions from passenger cars, which account for around two-thirds of total transportation emissions in the city, actually increased between 2005 and 2009. Car emissions declined slightly from 2005 to 2007, but then rose from 2007 to 2009. Mayoral spokesman Jason Post explained that car emissions have risen because of an increase in total driving.

For PlaNYC’s emissions goals to be a success, Post said, transportation emissions are going to have to decline. PlaNYC called for reducing transportation emissions by 6.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year. Post argued, however, that the city is on track to meet all its PlaNYC goals, though he didn’t specify how policies would push those transportation emissions down. PlaNYC has no intermediate benchmarks for transportation emissions between 2005 and 2030.

Congestion pricing was always meant to be PlaNYC’s big-ticket transportation program. In London, congestion charging has reduced CO2 emissions inside the charge zone by about 20 percent [PDF]. For PlaNYC to get back on track in terms of reducing transportation’s climate impact, we’re going to need a policy of similar, or larger, scale.

New PlaNYC chief David Bragdon started work last month. Based on this inventory, looks like greening our transportation system and reducing driving has to be near the top of his agenda. Is it still a priority for the top-level Bloomberg officials above him?

  • Glenn

    Avoided Sprawl is my favorite one of the reductions. How do they calculate that?

  • Doug

    How does “avoiding sprawl” even reduce greenhouse gasses? I don’t think CO2 opportunity costs factor into global warming.

  • “The bulk of that change came from improvements in the transit system: huge reductions were posted in emissions from diesel buses and in the amount of electricity used by the subways and commuter rail” [emphasis added].

    I’m aware of the energy savings from hybrid buses, but how is it possible to save electricity in the subway and commuter rail systems? Run fewer trains? Use more efficient rolling stock? The “huge reductions” part makes me curious.

  • Matt

    Regenerative breaking. All of the new cars (R160s) have it, and I believe it’s been retrofitted as well. This puts electric back in the grid, which for the purpose of the calculations = a reduction in energy. The newer trains are also slightly more efficient, but the braking is the big trick.

  • The surest way to reduce greenhouse gas emmissions from automobiles is total reduction in vehicle miles travelled. While hybrid cars offer a solution as part of a GHG reduction strategy, our overall goals must steadfastly remain towards reducing and eliminating car trips, and increasing trips using public transportation, especially those on fixed rail routes.

    Commuter rail and light rail are the most effective and efficient modes of transporting commuters. New York City is very fortunate to have such a large network of subways, NJT, LIRR and MTA commuter trains.

    Philadelphia is sadly moving in the opposite direction. In just the past (3) years, the regional transit authority, SEPTA, has converted (3) of its commuter rail lines into linear parks, or rail-trails. Residents of Philadelphia have expressed their interest in improved rail service by returning to the trains. Since 1990, ridership on several lines in the northern suburbs has increased by more than 200%.

    To address the permanent surge in ridership, SEPTA is now committed to increasing capacity by contracting the rail system and building large hubs, which will accomodate riders with parking garages. This is counter to what cities across the country are doing. By expanding and fully utilizing the existing network of rail lines, more people will have the ability to walk to or bike to a local transit station, which will increase active transportation, reduce GHG and energy consumption.

  • Brian Paul

    Great post, I argued in Gotham Gazette ( earlier this year that PlaNYC’s rhetoric on “transit-oriented development” is greenwashing the City’s continued provision of huge parking garages with major new developments like Queens West and Domino Sugar, great to see some new data that backs up my argument.

    As you wrote back in February, the City needs to stop requiring and subsidizing on-site parking in new development, I think that’s the biggest factor that’s contributed to this rise in driving.

  • Perhaps all the new plazas, various lane closing and their impacts on traffic contributes to the slight increase in vehicular greenhouse emissions. More to the point, the congestion tax schemes never would have addressed environmental concerns. It never addressed the truck traffic and other diesel emission vehicles outside government control. There have been plans long dormant to address these things, none ever incorporated into PlaNYC though specific plans and language were suggested at two planning session and none of the information found its way onto the website accounts of those meetings (that is when I realized how top down the planning was and apparently remains). We outlined during the “debates” over the congestion tax and its too-tax child the following year why it makes no sense and offered alternatives. What complicates things moving forward is how the transit agency made clear no amount of resources would reverse recent cuts. In a response to a question posed by a transit union president at York College yesterday, Walder did nothing to move away from that outrageous position.

  • Perhaps all the new plazas, various lane closing and their impacts on traffic contributes to the slight increase in vehicular greenhouse emissions.

    And perhaps monkeys will fly out of my butt. That old “slowing traffic actually causes congestion, you muddle-headed liberal!” lie has been debunked so thoroughly that you should be ashamed for trying to pass it by anyone who’s been alive since 1995. How can you live with all those lies, Corey? Or do you spend so much time in your echo chamber that you’ve started believing they were true?

  • Excuse me, the lie is “slowing traffic actually causes pollution,” not congestion.

  • Cap’n Transit look at the City’s own reports. Facts are the facts. Be careful when you visit the zoo.

  • Predictions and conjectures are not facts, Corey.


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