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Environ Sci Technol. 2014 Jan 21;48(2):895-902. doi: 10.1021/es4034364. Epub 2014 Jan 2.

Spatial distribution of U.S. household carbon footprints reveals suburbanization undermines greenhouse gas benefits of urban population density.

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Energy and Resources Group, ‡Goldman School of Public Policy, and §Department of Nuclear Engineering, University of California , Berkeley, California 94720, United States.


Which municipalities and locations within the United States contribute the most to household greenhouse gas emissions, and what is the effect of population density and suburbanization on emissions? Using national household surveys, we developed econometric models of demand for energy, transportation, food, goods, and services that were used to derive average household carbon footprints (HCF) for U.S. zip codes, cities, counties, and metropolitan areas. We find consistently lower HCF in urban core cities (∼ 40 tCO2e) and higher carbon footprints in outlying suburbs (∼ 50 tCO2e), with a range from ∼ 25 to >80 tCO2e in the 50 largest metropolitan areas. Population density exhibits a weak but positive correlation with HCF until a density threshold is met, after which range, mean, and standard deviation of HCF decline. While population density contributes to relatively low HCF in the central cities of large metropolitan areas, the more extensive suburbanization in these regions contributes to an overall net increase in HCF compared to smaller metropolitan areas. Suburbs alone account for ∼ 50% of total U.S. HCF. Differences in the size, composition, and location of household carbon footprints suggest the need for tailoring of greenhouse gas mitigation efforts to different populations.

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