Urban Areas on West Coast Produce Least Emissions Per Capita

By Felicity Barringer
Los Angeles, CA (May 29, 2008)- The West Coast’s metropolitan areas had among the lowest carbon emissions per capita in the country in 2005, according to a new ranking of 100 urban areas. The region’s mild climates, hydropower, and aggressive energy-reduction policies give its residents smaller carbon footprints, on average, than those of their counterparts in the East and Midwest.


The Honolulu area ranked No. 1 in the study, from the Brookings Institution, followed by the area including Los Angeles and Orange Counties in California, the Portland-Vancouver area in the Northwest and the New York metropolitan area. A cluster of Rust Belt urban areas were at the bottom of the rankings, including Toledo, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Lexington, Ky., which ranked last.
The authors offer a partial portrait of overall emissions, concentrating on residential electricity and fuel use and the mileage traveled by cars and trucks – factors that contribute about half of overall carbon emissions. The calculations do not include industrial emissions, those from commercial or government structures and those from air, rail or sea transportation. But they provide a new look at metropolitan areas.
The report was accompanied by policy recommendations, including federal legislation setting a price on carbon emissions, increasing financing for energy research and development, revising federal policies that reward states with high levels of travel and fuel use and providing more, and more predictable, financial support of mass transit.
While the report did not go into the precise causes of each ranking, it provided hints at the factors that correlated with higher or lower scores. Population density and the availability of rail transportation were associated with lower per capita carbon emissions; the Los Angeles area is the most densely populated in the country, according to Brookings figures.
Other metropolitan areas in the top 25 included Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, New Haven, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Rochester.
Also associated with high rankings were government policies that promoted energy efficiency, particularly electricity rate-setting policies. Rate-setting by state regulators has traditionally been geared to make more money for a utility if it sells more electricity. While rates may remain relatively low, pleasing customers, utilities have little incentive to encourage energy conservation.
“The worst footprints are in the traditionally regulated states,” said Marilyn A. Brown, a professor of energy policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who is one of the report’s three authors. “Utilities are reacting to what turns a profit for their shareholders,” and get no economic benefit from conservation, Dr. Brown said.
The Washington metropolitan area ranked No. 100 in per capita residential carbon emissions and No. 89 on the overall list; also in the bottom 25 over all were the Augusta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Knoxville, Tenn., Nashville, Oklahoma City and St. Louis metropolitan areas.
“The Washington, D.C., metro area’s residential electricity footprint was 10 times larger than Seattle’s footprint in 2005,” the report said. “The mix of fuels used to generate electricity in Washington includes high-carbon sources like coal while Seattle draws its energy primarily from essentially carbon-free hydropower.”
By contrast, California set extensive energy efficiency requirements for home appliances; per capita energy use has remained largely flat in the state for 30 years. This factor, combined with its low-carbon electricity and warmer climate, were the most likely reasons that 8 of 10 California metropolitan areas ranked in the top 25 on the Brookings list.
Among the report’s recommendations was a change in federal law that would require home sellers to disclose the annual energy costs of the dwelling in the years before the sale.
The combination of transportation and residential emissions data sometimes masked the forces driving a region’s per capita carbon emissions up or down.
For instance, the proximity of a port, with its related freight traffic, depressed the overall scores of some areas, including Jacksonville (No. 80 over all) and Sarasota, Fla. (No. 81) and the Riverside-San Bernardino area east of Los Angeles (No. 32).
Considering only residential emissions, Jacksonville and Sarasota ranked Nos. 42 and 46, respectively; the Riverside area ranked No. 4. But both Florida areas have ports, and the Riverside area is the destination of many trucks carrying freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. All three ranked near the bottom on the list of transportation-related carbon emissions per capita.
The measurement system was created by three Brookings authors – Dr. Brown, Frank Southworth, who is on the senior research staff at Oakridge National Laboratory, and Andrea Sarzynski of the Brookings Institution.
Related Resources:
Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America
Urban Areas on West Coast Produce Least Emissions Per Capita- New York Times
Metropolitan Policy Program of the Bookings Institute
City Carbon Footprint Profiles
City Carbon Footprint Rankings