New assessment maps emissions in NYC neighborhoods near industrial areas
The explosive growth of online shopping has been heralded as an environmental benefit, as consumers avoid the fossil fuel emissions associated with traveling to and from physical stores. However, e-commerce goods still need to be stored and delivered, and often distribution warehouses are located in low-income communities that already suffer disproportionately from air pollution and other environmental problems.
Max Zhang, director of the Kathy Dwyer Marble and Curt Marble faculty at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and professor at the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is leading a project to quantify truck emissions around e-commerce warehouses in New York City . It will also study the air quality impact of wood stoves and fuel oil in Tompkins County. The three-year project will be supported by a $330,000 contract from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).
“Typically, these e-commerce warehouses are located near low-income neighborhoods or communities of color with existing air quality issues, and now you’re adding to the environmental burden,” Zhang said. “My goal in this research is to inform policy in a way that is fair and more environmentally friendly.”
An expert in air pollution engineering and sustainable energy systems, Zhang has previously supported projects that address air quality issues in the US, UK and China. Zhang developed the concept for this project in collaboration with the New York City Department of Health. Zhang approached the health department and asked what he could do as a scientist to support their work. Their biggest knowledge gaps were in understanding air quality patterns across the city, especially in industrial areas, he said.
“There are factors that make New York unique, but this problem exists in almost every metropolitan area. We hope that while we solve New York City’s problems, we also provide tools that can be used elsewhere,” he said.
Zhang’s lab will work to quantify truck emissions using a wide range of methods, including satellite imagery, computer vision and machine learning to make sense of satellite images, modeling air quality monitoring and data mining of social media feeds to leverage public reporting from citizens. about air pollution, idling trucks or other potentially relevant information.
“We are thrilled that NYSERDA funded Dr. Zhang’s work,” said Sarah Johnson, executive director of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Air Quality Program. “This will help us develop hyper-local emissions inventories in the industrial neighborhoods of our city and design policies and programs that will improve air quality in our most burdened communities.
In upstate New York, Zhang will use similar methods to help the Tompkins County Department of Planning and Sustainability quantify greenhouse gas emissions associated with wood-burning and oil-burning stoves. A previous woodstove pollution project involved mobile air quality monitoring around Ithaca. The recommendations Zhang’s group developed from this project have already improved air quality in parts of Ithaca.
“This study is a great example of research that can demonstrate how climate action can also clean the air and improve the quality of life for everyone,” said Ben Furnas ’06, executive director of The 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate. Initiative. “This is a key value of Cornell’s 2030 Project: informing climate work that leaves no one behind.”
“We’re creating tools that the community and policy makers can use to solve these problems,” Zhang said. “Community empowerment is always my goal for research.”
Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for Cornell Atkinson.