Are Your Greenhouse Gas Emissions All About Location, Location, Location? – Energy Institute at Haas


New research examines the role of individuals versus places in determining household carbon emissions.

 Source: Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle, Shutterstock

The average household in San Francisco emits 36 percent less CO2 from residential and transportation energy use than the average household in Houston. Within the San Francisco Bay Area, the top 10 Census tracts with the highest household carbon emissions emit, on average, 5.6 times more per capita than the 10 lowest emissions Census tracts. Researchers and policy makers have recently highlighted the tremendous spatial variation in household carbon emissions, both within and across cities. See e.g. here and here.

Some of these differences can be explained by household characteristics, such as household size and income; some can be explained by gas versus electric heating or type of automobile. The remaining variation has historically been attributed to characteristics of the places themselves and how various amenities (e.g., climate, density, public transit, walkability) correlate with average carbon footprints.

Average Household Carbon Emissions in San Francisco Bay Area

Figure shows average household carbon emissions from residential and transportation energy by Census Tract in the San Francisco Bay Area. Units are annual tons CO2 per household. Data source Green and Knittel, 2020.

This spatial variability could present an opportunity – perhaps we can learn from these places with low carbon footprints to better design and implement similar policies and practices nationwide in a quest to decarbonize the US economy.

A new paper by the Energy Institute’s own Eva Lyubich, available here as a new Energy Institute working paper, explores these issues in detail. The starting point of her paper is to recognize that people make choices about where they live, so different types of people live in different types of cities. Some people want to live in cities where they can drive to work, others prefer to commute via public transit or bike or walking. Some people want to live in a 3-bedroom house with a yard and others prefer an apartment building near lots of other people and restaurants. Through this lens, one quickly starts to realize that a lot of the differences we see in household carbon emissions across the US come from a mix of the characteristics of a particular place and the characteristics and preferences of people who choose to live there.

This distinction between people and places is fundamental, because if policymakers were to adopt some of the low carbon “best practices” from green cities and apply them elsewhere, we may receive much lower carbon benefits than observational differences may suggest. Said differently, someone from Houston, TX who loves to drive their SUV may …….


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