by Bryan Mitchiner
Last Thursday was the launch of the Know The Number greenhouse gas emissions counter: the first real-time counter that advertises the increasing amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
At 10 characters wide and atop its own 70-foot tall billboard, Deutsche Bank’s latest project looms large over all who enter New York City’s Time Square. The digital billboard displays the amount of equivalent greenhouse gas emissions in terms of carbon in the atmosphere, and is constantly updated based on measurements from NASA, NOAA, and supporting research from MIT.
We knew the carbon was there, so why so much hype? Displaying the numbers in real time changes the conversation. NASA and NOAA are able to measure the concentration of gases in the air, but even these measurements cannot constantly update themselves as often as the counter. The counter achieves this by predicting a bit into the future according to recent trends. In addition, the number is a reflection of all greenhouse gas emissions (methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) by their impact equivalencies in carbon. It even accounts for dips and rises in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere due to seasonal changes so not to appear to be slowing down certain times of the year.
Before Thursday, people could find out how much carbon was in the air, but the information was only updated every five years. That means that for four years, conversations about greenhouse gas emissions and about global climate change in general were numerically supported with outdated data. That’s akin to using 2000 census data to talk about cities in 2009. Kevin Parker, the chief executive officer of Deutsche Bank asset management says that displaying the count in real time “allows people to begin to engage in the debate around the issue.” In words that were used repeatedly throughout the event, the counter creates a sense of urgency, a call to action, and is intended to spur action to take the steps necessary in saving our planet.
The choice to install the counter in Times Square references the other famous counter this locale proudly hosts once a year. The countdown for each New Year and the dropping of the ball serves as a reminder of a new beginning, a fresh start, directed not just to New York, but around the world. Robert Socolow, a professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton explained the number during the panel discussion as, “a planetary number…the world is connected, this number is exactly the same wherever you are on the planet. So it promotes planetary thinking, planetary identity.”
Professor Socolow says we already have many solutions; we just need to put them in action. While much discussion throughout the event revolved around capping carbon emissions and putting a price on carbon, we were constantly reminded that this is only part of the answer to our problem. Another part of the answer lies in the solutions already out there, including electric vehicles, green building and renewable energy (see the Worldchanging archives for about 10,000 more examples).
The last part of the answer is what we have yet to dream up. This is what makes the counter exciting. The idea that the problem as advertised in the number is an opportunity for growth, for investment, for job and wealth creation.
We’ve been in need of something like this for years now. Ever since climate change has threatened a wide scale transformation of our economy, industry leaders worried that they will lose profits and have been fighting dirty -- with disinformation campaign designed to deceive the masses. Yet, these CEOs and executives have either failed to understand the business potential in such a transformation or are too stubborn to commit to change. The call to action and drive towards a bright green economy that this counter provides is a positive reminder. While it does remind us of the doom and gloom that we are climbing towards, it should remind us that we must get going now. What I hope and think we will see in the coming years: meaningful reduction. Let’s do more than just hope.
Bryan Mitchiner studies Community, Environment and Planning at the University of Washington. He is an intern at Worldchanging.com.
It would be nice if we had personal carbon counters rather than this dreadnaught type of counter hanging like Damocles' sword above our heads. Imagine a personal version: slowing down when you turn off lights or ride your bike to work. Good idea.