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The Geography of America's Carbon Footprint
Sarah Kuck, 29 May 08

When it comes to decreasing your carbon footprint, it may be better to change your location than to trade in your SUV. Although the more than two-thirds of Americans living in metro areas account for most of the greenhouse gas emissions, they are also more capable to use and support systems that can greatly shrink their carbon footprints.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution confirms that the carbon footprints of metro area residents are 14 percent smaller than the average American’s. As the study shows, this mostly has to do with development patterns. (We've comment on patterns such as density and rail transit before.)

The Institution recently released a report that quantifies the carbon footprint for the nation’s 100 largest metro areas based on fuels used by vehicles (personal and freight) and the energy used in residential buildings.“Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America” shows that metro areas with ‘high density, compact development and rail transit offer more energy and carbon efficient lifestyles that their sprawling, auto-centric’ counter parts.

The report’s partial carbon footprint analysis (partial because they did not include emissions from commercial buildings, industry, or non-highway transportation) also found that metro area residents are increasing their carbon emissions more slowly than the average American.

“The population of the 100 metro areas grew by only 6.3 percent. As a result, the average per capita footprint of the 100 metro areas grew by only 1.1 percent during the five-year period, while the U.S. partial carbon footprint increased twice as rapidly (by 2.2 percent) during this same timeframe.”

The report also illustrates the variations between the metro areas themselves:

Per capita carbon emissions from transportation and residential energy use, 2005
Rank, Metropolitan Area, Carbon Footprint (metric tons)
1. Honolulu, HI, 1.356
2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA, 1.413
3. Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton, OR-WA , 1.446
4. New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA, 1.495
5. Boise City-Nampa, ID, 1.507
6. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA , 1.556
7. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA , 1.573
8. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA , 1.585
9. El Paso, TX , 1.613
10. San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA , 1.630

Per capita carbon emissions from transportation and residential energy use, 2005
Rank, Metropolitan Area, Carbon Footprint (metric tons)
90. Tulsa, OK, 3.124
91. Knoxville, TN, 3.134
92. Harrisburg-Carlisle, PA, 3.190
93. Oklahoma City, OK, 3.204
94. St. Louis, MO-IL , 3.217
95. Nashville-Davidson--Murfreesboro, TN, 3.222
96. Louisville, KY-IN, 3.233
97. Toledo, OH , 3.240
98. Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN, 3.281
99. Indianapolis, IN, 3.364
100. Lexington-Fayette, KY, 3.455

As you can see, Lexington's footprint is almost double that of Honolulu's. The Institution hopes that ranking metro areas like this will help cities learn from each other and work together to decrease carbon emissions.

See the complete list of 100 metros' carbon footprints.

The Geography of America’s Carbon Footprint
The study shows that per capita emissions vary widely by city, depending mostly on the availability of density and rail transit options. So dense areas like New York and Los Angeles actually have smaller footprints per capita than areas like Nashville and Oklahoma City, which are less compact.

Also factoring into footprint size as is where the city gets its energy from (coal versus hydropower, for example), the price of that energy (when prices are lower, consumption is higher), and weather (much energy is put into air conditioning and water heating).

As the chart below shows, carbon footprints are much larger in the East and South because of these factors. Hydropower helps areas like Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue keep their carbon footprint small, as do moderate temperatures and high fossil fuel prices.


The study concludes that although local and regional governments are stepping up to meet the challenge of decreasing carbon emissions, where we really need to see leadership and policy is at the federal level.

“To improve the carbon efficiency of the wider economy, the report urges that Washington put a price on carbon; increase investment in energy research and development; establish a national renewable electricity standard; help states reform their electricity regulations; and improve information collection on emissions and energy consumption."

To help metro areas reduce demand for energy consumption the study recommends that the federal government empower states and metro areas to:

• Expand transit and compact development options
• Engage in regional freight planning to introduce more energy-efficient freight operations
• Stimulate energy efficient retrofitting
• Incentivize location efficient housing decisions
• Issue a metropolitan challenge to develop innovative solutions that integrate land use, transportation, energy, and other areas

“Altogether, a federal pro-metropolitan portfolio of carbon policies could place metropolitan America at the forefront of problem-solving on the nation’s energy and climate challenges.”

I think mapping out our carbon crisis will help us see what's working and where. Hopefully this information can help us continue the conversation in ways that encourage us work together to find the best solutions.

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You got a bad link in there to the full list of 100 cities...

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 30 May 08

I wonder how much that would change if you factored in food sources. I doubt Honolulu would stay #1.

I'm also shocked that LA is second on there. the center of American car culture has a smaller carbon footprint than Portland? I guess the climate counts for a lot, but what else? LA gets a lot of power from wind and hydroelectric, but is it really enough to offset all those car emissions?

Posted by: zyzzyva on 30 May 08

The Portland v. LA comparison certainly is surprising.

Southern California Edison power mix:
(11% coal, 48% natural gas)

Portland General Electric mix:
(42% coal, 14% natural gas)

The entire Pacific NW has a kind of tragic electricity legacy. Starting in the 30's huge hydroelectric projects were built with large (Depression, and the WWII) government subsidies, providing an enormous amount of power - more than the region's population could realistically use at the time. This drove electricity prices to rock bottom, making it cheaper for everyone to build poorly insulated houses, and to use electricity for all their heating needs for decades. When the population (and per-capita consumption) caught up with the electricity supply, there were no more big dam sites left to exploit, but there were bad power-use habits and a population that expected infinite cheap electricity, and this resulted in a lot of coal plants being built. Read Cadillac Desert for more detail.

Power generation decisions take decades to run their course. A coal plant built today will almost certainly still be operating in 2030, possibly even 2050 or beyond (thankfully the same is true of any solar-thermal plant we build today!)

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 30 May 08

Actually - looking at SoCal in detail, you'll notice that some of the worst offenders (esp. transportation-wise) are all of the cities surrounding LA: Riverside/San Bernadino, Bakersfield, Orange County. I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that a big part of those emissions are actually because of LA proper: all the corporate distribution centers in Kern County just over the grapevine (Ikea, UPS, etc), all the produce that comes from the Coachella and Imperial and San Joaquin valleys to feed LA, all the long-distance commuters coming from the Inland Empire and Palmdale and the OC. Especially in the case of trucking it seems like it would be better to associate the emissions with the buyer of the goods, rather than the person shuttling the stuff around.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 30 May 08

I've lowered my carbon footprint by driving a hybrid vehicle; however, it's impossible for me to escape the from city life.

Posted by: Green Pest Control Products on 2 Jun 08

#3 on the list of ways to reduce carbon footprints is to stimulate energy efficient retrofitting. State and federal governments can help encourage this through tax and grant incentives, and over the long term there is a great economic benefit to companies who retrofit their lighting systems. There is starting to be a shift in attitude and people are realizing how wasteful the old lighting systems are. This can be a win-win for companies bottom lines and the public.

Posted by: All Tech on 3 Jun 08

I'm amazed that the Detroit Metro is rated better than Minneapolis/St. Paul and Denver, given that we have no options for mass transit and one of the worst-ranked commutes in the nation. Must be that natural gas heating, as it seems we use a small amount of residential electricity. That, or we're too poor to use more!

Posted by: phikapbob on 4 Jun 08



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