Thursday, June 12, 2008
So, it’s finally time for land use policies to take account of global climate change and carbon footprints, right? Sure. But what types of consumer activities contribute most to the dilemma of too much carbon in the atmosphere? Often, policy discussions quickly focus on automobile emissions, with the subsequent policy prescription to favor public transportation and shorten commutes. Okay, again. But a recent study by the Brookings Institution (no corporate lackey) suggests that residential density and electricity generation are perhaps the most important factors in a metro area’s carbon footprint. Of 100 metro areas that Brookings studied, Los Angeles (yes, that great mecca of the auto lifestyle) came out as the second most carbon stingy area, just behind Honolulu. Residents of both these cities save carbon because of their pleasant climates, and Angelenos (defined helpfully to include only L.A. and Orange counties) use relatively less carbon because they live fairly densely and in fairly modest-sized houses.
Which factors contribute most significantly to a big carbon footprint per capita? Bad weather, a smaller metro area (which tends to be less dense), and, perhaps most significantly of all, whether the local electricity comes from coal. Nearly all the biggest carbon users per capita were in the Mississippi and Ohio River basins (Lexington, Ky., Indianapolis, and Cincinnati were the worst). Western cities use far less carbon for residential use. Here’s Brookings’s policy brief, and here’s the list of the metro areas, along with maps.
So, yes, let’s work on improving and encouraging public transportation. But if we’re really concerned about carbon, let’s worry just as much about density and electricity, even if it doesn’t meet our preconceptions of the wasteful American lifestyle …
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