On March 31st, Penn IUR welcomed a diverse audience of students, faculty, and interested members of the public for its final MUSA brown bag lunch of the semester, featuring Penn IUR Faculty Fellow Daniel Aldana Cohen, Assistant Professor of Sociology. Following a brief introduction by Ken Steif, MUSA Program Director, Cohen guided the audience through his research efforts to analyze and map complex greenhouse gas emission data in order to craft compelling stories that reach policy makers.
Initially interested in the qualitative aspects of carbon emission research, such as how political actors promote or hinder climate change mitigation efforts, Cohen explained that his recent work has shifted to integrate quantitative data into the story. Given the urgent nature of climate change, he sought to map the socio-spatial driver of climate change with an eye to facilitating action.
A key conceptual challenge to mapping the issue is the difficultly of assigning emissions to a responsible party. Typically, emissions are counted territorially, based on where they arise. An alternative measurement method is to count the lifecycle costs of everything a person buys and attribute emissions to the final consumer. Cohen, advocating for the latter approach, displayed maps of New York City emissions by zip code. His analysis of New York found that the emissions savings that resulted from increased density in Manhattan were outweighed by the higher income levels of Manhattan’s population.
Recognizing the limitations of attributing the responsibility for carbon emissions to individual consumers, Cohen argued that the question of how emissions are spatially aggregated needs to be framed and mapped in a politically useful way. For example, could we map the carbon emission implications of gentrification or certain housing policies aimed at addressing gentrification? Cohen’s research is heading in that direction. His goal is to translate the complex, big-data problem of climate change into a more palatable and visual narrative that can spur politicians to take action on policies that will lower emissions.
The event concluded with a range of questions from the audience. When questioned on how to navigate international energy agreements given disparities in consumption, Cohen argued for a more just distribution of emissions where low-emitting countries actually consume more as they get the resources they need, but top emitters lower their consumption to meet somewhere closer to the middle. Asked about how to reconcile productive economies with reduced carbon emissions, Cohen noted a strategy such as a carbon tax is one way to encourage lower emissions without hurting local economic development.