Why Suburbanites Contribute More to Climate Change

%name Why Suburbanites Contribute More to Climate Change
Photo: Ursula Alter

More and more Americans are taking responsibility for their personal contribution to global climate change by driving fuel efficient cars, insulating their homes and switching to energy efficient lighting and household appliances.

However, even someone that’s gone to the extremes of traveling only on foot or bicycle and forsaking home heating, cooling, lighting, food refrigeration and cooking will likely shrink their carbon footprint by only about a third.  That’s because roughly two-thirds of Americans’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are embedded instead in consumption of other goods and services, according to a recent analysis by the Center for Global Development (CGD), a non-profit policy research organization.

Most of us attribute our GHG footprint to the easily discerned energy we consume for personal transportation and home utilities.  Yet these so-called “direct” emissions account for just 36 percent of the average American’s annual GHG emissions which are equivalent to 21.8 tons of CO2.

The remaining 64 percent of GHG emissions are “indirect” and produced during the manufacture and production of literally everything else we consume, such as food, shelter, clothing, furniture, cars, bicycles, appliances, electronics, pets, toys, tools, cleaning supplies, medications, toiletries, entertainment and air travel.  The fact that indirect emissions typically take place somewhere distant and out of our sight, like in a factory overseas and during transport of products to the point of sale, underlies our lack of connection to them.

To calculate direct and indirect GHG emissions, CGD broke down all household expenditures into 52 categories using a representative database of U.S. household spending for 2008-2012 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Existing life-cycle studies of the GHG intensity of items in a given spending category allowed estimation of the GHG emissions per dollar spent in each category.  Using U.S. Census Bureau survey information then enabled CGD to figure how per person GHG emissions vary with factors like income, population density, zip code and even congressional district.

Key findings included how income and geographic region impact GHG emissions.  Whether people identify as Republican or Democrat made little difference.

Per person GHG emissions increased with income, from the lowest quintile (20 percent) income bracket to the highest quintile.  Compared to a person in the bottom quintile, the GHG footprint of someone in the top quintile was, on average, about three times larger, and the average footprint of the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans was more than four times greater.  Importantly, indirect GHG emissions contributed the lion’s share to these differences.

This income effect on indirect emissions partly explains why per capita GHG emissions are overall highest in U.S. suburbs, moderate in rural regions and lowest in high density urban areas.  The inefficiency of both suburban housing (fewer people in larger homes) and transportation (longer commutes and reliance on personal autos) is obviously also contributory.

Regarding the relatively low GHG footprint of urbanites, CGD states that, “The unambiguously lowest GHG footprints are found in places with both high density and lower incomes and consumption. That is, where the energy efficiency benefits of density are not offset by higher incomes and a resulting increase in indirect emissions.”

%name Why Suburbanites Contribute More to Climate Change
Global mean surface temperature change from 1880 to 2014, relative to the 1951–1980 mean. Source: NASA GISS.

CGD’s illumination of the contribution of affluence and indirect GHG emissions to climate change adds weight to Pope Francis’ momentous June encyclical on caring for the environment in which he addresses the role of a culture of consumptive excess in all manner of environmental degradations, including climate change.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is also calling for action on climate change and led a panel on the subject at UC Irvine on July 7 as part of his Global Compassion Summit.

While both the Pope and the Dalai Lama agree that it is the responsibility of individuals as well as nations to do what is needed to address climate change, any notion that coaxing individuals to reign in their consumer excesses could suffice to reduce GHG gases enough to thwart climate change would be naïve, to say the least.  Federal action is needed.

The beauty of a national carbon tax, designed to place a price on all domestic sources of CO2 emissions with border adjustments to spur other nations to do the same, is that it would inherently provide the free market incentives to drastically cut both direct and indirect GHG emissions in a timely and sustainable manner.  A simple legislative proposal for a carbon tax, with dividends put directly back in the pockets of consumers, has in fact already been crafted by the non-partisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

When asked if “the federal government should act to limit the amount of greenhouse gases U.S. businesses put out,” 78 percent said yes in a nationwide survey recently conducted jointly by Stanford University and Resources for the Future.

All that’s needed now is the political will in Congress to act responsibly to insure our children inherit a livable world.