When it Comes to Reducing New York City Emissions, CUNY Flunks the Test

The city university system is plagued by underfunding, with repairs and retrofits to its aging buildings competing with other priorities, like the addition of new laboratories or technologies.

Plaque at the City University of New York (CUNY) Headquarters in New York City. Credit: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
Plaque at the City University of New York (CUNY) Headquarters in New York City. Credit: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Share this article

On East 68th Street, tucked away on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the Thomas Hunter Hall building slowly hums a sigh of relief. The Hunter College students have graduated, leaving the neighborhood to chic elderly residents, doctors and nurses in scrubs, and construction workers busy renovating the subway station. The people outside the building’s impressive facade have no idea that it is one of the worst emitters of greenhouse gases, in the city agency with the worst record for emissions reduction.

According to a recent analysis by The Center for an Urban Future, a Manhattan-based public policy think tank, Thomas Hunter Hall and the adjoining North Building have the dubious distinction of emitting 17.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide per square-foot, an amount equivalent to burning 20 pounds of coal and the most of any other buildings in the City University of New York (CUNY). 

CUNY is New York’s public university system and the fourth-largest university system in the country by enrollment, serving more than 275,000 students from diverse backgrounds, across 25 campuses. According to The New York Times, CUNY helps nearly six times as many low-income students move into the middle class as Duke, Stanford, Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and all the Ivy League schools in the nation, combined.

CUNY is also one of eight city agencies that have seen emissions increase instead of decrease, according to the think tank’s analysis. From 2014 to 2019 the emissions intensity across 117 CUNY buildings rose 15 percent, from 7.49 to 8.58 kilograms of carbon dioxide per square-foot. The Department of Environmental Protection was another area that saw building emission intensity increase during the same period, rising 6.8 percent, from 18.64 to 19.91 kilograms per square-foot. 


We deliver climate news to your inbox like nobody else. Every day or once a week, our original stories and digest of the web’s top headlines deliver the full story, for free.

The city does not yet track emissions for every building it owns. But the overall trend of more than 1,500 buildings that were tracked was positive. Emissions dropped 9.6 percent. That change was powered by agencies like the Administration for Children’s Services, which slashed emissions by 21 percent.

Buildings alone accounted for two-thirds of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 (the last year before Covid-19 lockdowns changed building usage), emitting the equivalent of 1.97 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, an amount equivalent to the emissions from driving over 400,000 gas-powered cars for a year. So shrinking the carbon footprint of buildings is essential to the city’s goal of getting to net-zero emissions by 2050.

So why are CUNY buildings so noxious? They are old buildings that are not just behind in energy upgrades but have not been properly maintained, said to Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future. CUNY has had to balance fixing basic issues like leaking roofs and broken HVAC systems with adding spaces for news laboratories and technologies.

“CUNY has historically received really insufficient capital funding from the city and state of New York,” said Dvorkin. “CUNY’s building stock is old. These are buildings that were built for a completely different era. Just transitioning away from oil and gas is an enormous challenge for CUNY.”

The think tank’s analysis calls on New York City Mayor Eric Adams, along with city and state officials, to provide the money to pay for building upgrades and retrofits. Only with the necessary funding can CUNY go from increasing carbon emissions to decreasing them, the analysis  said.

“If the city’s going to continue to drive down emissions from the buildings it owns, there needs to be a whole new level of focus on investing in CUNY’s capital needs,” said Dvorkin. CUNY would use that capital to ”execute ambitious building retrofits and energy efficiency upgrades and ultimately to build a much greener CUNY in the future.” 

Help may be on the way, however. State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, a Hunter College alumnus, has pushed for more funding through a bill before the New York State Senate, known as the “New Deal for CUNY.” The bill, introduced in February 2021, is currently sitting in the Higher Education Committee. 

But Gounardes has not been idle. In a phone call, he pointed to key funding increases that he was able to get passed as part of the state’s 2023 fiscal year budget.

“We got a $240 million increase in operating support, as well as a billion dollars in capital funding pledged directly to CUNY,” Gournades said. “And that’s going to help with building maintenance, building upgrades, as well as helping to create the new campuses of the next generation of CUNY.”  Building upgrades to reduce carbon emissions could include things as simple as adding insulation to retain heat while keeping buildings comfortable to employing advanced technologies like HVAC systems that use geothermal heat pumps to cut energy costs for heating and cooling.

While a billion dollars is helpful, it’s not quite enough to meet CUNY’s need for $1.247 billion in capital for 2023, according to an official budget request. And it is just a fraction of the $5.6 billion that the New Deal for CUNY bill proposes.

Gounardes said he was unsurprised when he heard that Thomas Hunter Hall was tied with the North Building for the building with the highest emissions intensity in all of CUNY.

“I remember when I was there, 15, 16 years ago, it was an old building,” said Gounardes. “The billion dollars of capital funding is going to be critical to help buildings like the Thomas Hunter building.”

In a statement, a CUNY spokesperson said that the university system “maintains 300 buildings totaling 29 million square feet across 25 campuses in five boroughs. The average CUNY building is more than 50-years-old, most are over 30; some exceed 100.” 

The statement said that a “historical investment” of $965.8 million in capital funds had been included in the state budget for “much-needed improvements and critical maintenance of our campus facilities.” 

Keep Environmental Journalism Alive

ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.

Donate Now

Back on the corner of East 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, just across the street from Hunter College’s North Building, Caroline Chiok clutches her mobile phone and a purple folder. The incoming freshman said she felt that community action, not state policies were what it would take to properly upgrade a building so old it was dedicated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“I believe that the citizens are the people who are actually trying to actively change what’s going on in their neighborhood,” said Chiok.

Just a few feet west of the corner where Chiok stands, on the wall of the North Building, obscured by a summering tree, is a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We are of different opinions at different hours but we always may be said to be at heart on the side of truth.” 

The truth about the building where these words are etched isn’t pretty, a conclusion Emerson foreshadowed in an essay entitled “Nature” he wrote years before the building’s inscription: “in the wilderness I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages.”