The blackout that left roughly 72,000 New Yorkers in the dark this past weekend didn't just roil everyday routines. The outage that snuffed out the lights on Broadway, halted subways and shuttered corner delis likely triggered negative consequences for the climate, as well.
From the food that got tossed when refrigerators stopped working, to air conditioning units that had to draw on even more power to get up to speed, here are a few of the ways the blackout may have affected the local environment.
The carbon footprint
You might think that when the lights go out, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted as people go about their day would go down. But you'd be wrong.
“The footprint grows because whenever you have a power failure you have all kinds of inefficiencies and waste that cascades through the system,'' says Carl Pope, senior climate adviser to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with whom he wrote the book "Climate of Hope."
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For instance, roughly 20% of power in the U.S. is backed up by diesel generators, Pope says. "They are much less efficient, much more carbon intensive ... than the regular power system,'' he says. "Blackouts in a place like New York City where they're not very common aren't a big part of the city's carbon footprint. But in parts of Africa and Asia where blackouts are routine and where people therefore rely very heavily on diesel generators, blackouts are a major part of the carbon footprint. So they're bad news for the climate.''
The environment can also be negatively impacted If industrial processes, like small scale manufacturing, get interrupted when the power fails, forcing businesses to go back to square one to remake the item when the lights come back on, Pope says.
From fridge to the trash
Based on the more than 1.2 million tons of food waste generated by New York City in a given year, roughly 29 tons of food was possibly tossed as a result of Saturday's blackout, says Justin Wood, director of organizing and strategic research for the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
"I believe this is very conservative given the huge number of restaurants and food stores in the central Manhattan business district affected by the blackout,'' said Wood, whose organization focuses on waste policy and its inequities among other issues.
Of the food thrown out during the blackout because of fears that it had spoiled or perhaps failed to sell, 99% likely ended up in a landfill or incinerated, Wood says. That's problematic for the environment in a few ways.
Fuel is used to truck the trash to landfills far from the city. And then "organic waste like food ... when it's buried in landfills, breaks down into methane gas,'' Wood says, "a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming effect. So it's a huge problem.''
Food that is not consumed also wastes the effort that went into producing it. "Of course there's a massive amount of fossil fuels that go into growing our food and transporting it, so when we waste it, we're also wasting all of that energy and water that was required to grow'' it.
When electricity is finally restored after an outage, appliances need a lot of it to get up and running.
"When the blackout is over, refrigerators have to work harder, air conditioners work harder to catch up,'' Pope says. "So there's no net gain.’’
If the train stops, do you drive instead?
Some subway trains ground to a halt during the roughly five-hour outage, as several tunnels went dark. There may have been New Yorkers who opted to walk. But in the age of shared rides, some likely exchanged hopping on a subway powered by electricity, to another form of transportation dependent on gas.
"My guess is people get an Uber or Lyft or (jump in) their cars,'' Pope says, "so it makes it worse.’’
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Blackout: How is climate affected by New York power outage