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Best and worst communities in Northeast Ohio (based on household carbon footprint)

David Beach  |  01/29/14 @ 5:00pm  |  Posted in Clean energy

Households in the wealthy suburbs of Northeast Ohio have roughly twice the impact on climate change as households in the region’s central cities.

Carbon footprints<br />Map of household carbon footprints in Northeast Ohio by zip code (Source: UC Berkeley CoolClimate Network, Average Annual Household Carbon Footprint, 2013, http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/maps)

A new study by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley provides the best look yet at the carbon footprint of communities across the U.S. The study has an interactive map on Berkeley’s CoolClimate Network website, which lets you see average annual household carbon footprint by zip code.

The map was created from an analysis of demand for energy, transportation, food, goods, and services. By including consumption factors, it provides a more complete picture of carbon emissions than other studies which focus only on household energy use or transportation.

If you look at the map and zoom in on Northeast Ohio, you can see big differences between urban cores and suburbs. The pattern of carbon emissions mirrors the distribution of wealth in the region, highlighting the relationships between income, consumption, and climate impacts.

Low-carbon zip codes

From the map, here are some of the Northeast Ohio zip codes with the lowest average annual household carbon footprints (measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent):

  • 44308 Akron -- 21.1
  • 44702 Canton -- 23.5
  • 44114 Cleveland -- 26.5
  • 44115 Cleveland -- 27.2
  • 44304 Akron -- 33.5
  • 44106 Cleveland -- 34.3
  • 44113 Cleveland -- 34.9
  • 44104 Cleveland -- 36.3
  • 44307 Akron -- 37.3
  • 44102 Cleveland -- 39.9

High-carbon zip codes

Zip codes with the highest carbon footprints in Northeast Ohio include:

  • 44141 Brecksville -- 65.3
  • 44280 Valley City -- 66.3
  • 44056 Macedonia -- 66.3
  • 44139 Solon -- 68.3
  • 44022 Chagrin Falls -- 68.5
  • 44072 Novelty -- 69.8
  • 44023 Chagrin Falls -- 71.6
  • 44233 Hinckley -- 71.8
  • 44236 Hudson -- 75.4
  • 44040 Gates Mills -- 85.6

Density and wealth

One of the study’s interesting findings regards the environmental benefits of population density. Higher density is related to lower carbon footprints in central cities, where transit and smaller living spaces contribute to low-carbon lives. But increasing density does not seem to help in suburbs, where the impact of bigger houses, more cars, and higher consumption seems to counteract the benefits of compact development. Surprisingly, higher density suburbs have the highest carbon emissions because they tend to be the some of the nation’s wealthiest communities.

These findings have implications for regional planning and metropolitan sustainability. According to comments by the study authors: “our primary conclusion is the population density has contributed to lower household carbon footprints in urban core cities, but low carbon central cities also tend to have high carbon footprint suburbs. Planners need to consider economic, social and environmental interrelationships between central cities and suburbs in planning more sustainable communities.”

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David Beach
6 months ago

Mandy, you raise a good point that not all consumption has the same carbon footprint. But here's how the study's authors explain their methodology: "The model uses national household energy, transportation, and consumer expenditures surveys along with local census, weather and other data -- 37 variables in total -- to approximate greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the energy, transportation, food, goods and services consumed by average households in essentially all populated U.S. zip codes....The primary drivers of carbon footprints are household income, vehicle ownership and home size, all of which are considerably higher in suburbs. Other important factors include population density, the carbon intensity of electricity production, energy prices and weather."

They also say that they assume a linear relationship between household spending and carbon emissions from goods and services. I agree that it's hard to believe this is true (for the reason you suggest), but they say that other studies confirm this linear relationship. The exception is for spending on food (while rich people spend more for better food, they don't consume a greater quantity), and the study does take this into account.

You are correct that, controlling for income and household size, density has a significant relationship to carbon emissions even in the suburbs. However, the study finds that, in practice, the higher density suburbs also have higher income levels and more driving, so the benefits of density are negated. I think the authors want to make the point that density alone will not solve the carbon problem in suburbs. Cities and suburbs need different strategies.

There's certainly a lot to think about in this study. The coolclimate.berkeley.edu website also has an interesting map of average vehicle miles traveled by zip code. If you look at Northeast Ohio, you can see that some suburban households drive an average of three times as much as some urban households.

Jim Converse
6 months ago

It is hard to say that concentrated poverty has some positive effects but this appears to be the case.

Helen and Scott Nearing among others talk about simple living and having a lighter footprint on the earth. Maybe it is time we begin to remember "blessed are the poor for they shall inherit (or at least help preserve) the earth."

Mandy Metcalf
6 months ago

Thanks for posting this very thought provoking study. Is it possible their methodology skews the results by assuming that every dollar spent in a goods sector has the same carbon impact? We know that cheap products often have greater carbon impacts than expensive products. If someone spends $400 on a locally designed and crafted organic cotton dress that does not mean that they are responsible for 10 times the carbon emissions than someone buying a $40 dress from China. In fact the cheaper dress likely has a much bigger carbon impact. Does the study take into account differences between quality and quantity in goods and services? Regardless, the size of housing is much more of a wealth-related factor than goods and services, because it relates to housing energy.

Mandy Metcalf
6 months ago

Controlling for income and household size, density had a strongly significant relationship to carbon emissions even in the suburbs. Not sure why the study authors do not highlight this point more. Although wealth has a bigger impact, density does help, even in suburbs.

David Beach
6 months ago

Indeed, the values of our consumer society lead many people to want to move to places like Gates Mills. That's a big reason why it will be so hard to reduce carbon emissions overall.

David Owen talks about this in his book, The Conundrum. He writes: "We're consumers at heart, and our response to difficulties of all kinds usually involves consumption in one form or another: just tell me what to buy. The challenge arises when consumption itself is the issue. How do we truly begin to think about less -- less fossil fuel, less carbon, less water, less waste, less habitat destruction, less population stress -- when our sense of economic, cultural, and personal well-being is based on more?"

He suggests that livable, walkable, dense cities are key to making it possible for more people to live low-consumption, low-carbon lives.

haz man
6 months ago

Makes me want to move to Gates Mills.

He Sits and He Says...
6 months ago

Meanwhile, Ryan Homes has an advertising blitz for its "Green & Gorgeous" houses.

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