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Follow the Carbon: The Case for Neighborhood-Level Carbon Footprints

By Daniel Aldana Cohen and Kevin Ummel - July 2, 2019


“The normal way of attributing carbon emissions to a population or a place is the territorial carbon footprint (Yetano Roche et al. 2013). The method is pick a jurisdictional boundary—national, regional, urban—and count up all the emissions that occur within it.

But there is a problem: this method of emissions attribution conceptualizes the global economy as a series of adjacent “snow-globes,” thus failing to consider the ways that affluence in particular places depends on polluting activity that occurs elsewhere. In fact, the economy functions as a vast, interconnected web of nodes and flows (Wachsmuth, Cohen, and Angelo 2016).”

“Disproportionately high consumption emissions (relative to territorial) are found in wealthy (and usually politically liberal) post-industrial cities, whose affluence—and attendant consumption—depend to an extraordinary extent on polluting activity that occurs in distant cities, suburbs and rural areas”

“Consumption-based carbon accounting undermines the widespread claims that raw urban residential density is intrinsically good for the climate (cf Owen 2009; Barber 2017), a misleading accounting identity that makes affluent liberal city-dwellers look low-carbon by default (Rice et al. 2019). But even consumption counts of cities as a whole are too rough an approximation, blotting out important social and spatial differences within cities.”

“Consumption accounting at this neighborhood level, which measures the consumption behavior of a neighborhood’s residents, provides a more fine-grained understanding of how economic activity causes climate change than either territorial accounting, or consumption accounting at low levels of spatial resolution. Consumption accounting conducted with the best possible statistical precision—including tracing statistical error throughout the modelling, using the broadest range of datasets—should help us understand the intersections of demographic factors and the built environment in causing carbon emissions.”

“With neighborhood-level household carbon footprints, it is also possible to map carbon footprints and to decompose their drivers—like neighborhood walkability, home size, vehicle type, amount of consumption of particular goods and foods. We can then explore how these relate to social inequalities—eg, do only the affluent tend to live in highly walkable neighborhoods? (The urban literature on gentrification suggests that this is happening.) And we can analyze intersections between social and demographic factors, emissions drivers, and exposure to environmental harms from present pollution to projected flood risk.”

“despite the marginal benefit of density on emissions, wealth still countermands much of the density effect because the wealthy consume many goods and services, even if they live in apartments and walk to work. Compared to their suburban counterparts, wealthy households appear to spend utility and gasoline savings on other carbon-rich goods (see also Heinonen, Kyrö, and Junnila 2011).

To be clear, the argument is not that density causes wealth and consumption. Rather, it is that territorial emissions accounting fails to capture many of the emissions caused by affluent residents of dense areas. In contrast, the kind of consumption accounting that we are developing should help clarify what is really going on, and to develop finer-tuned policies (including fairer taxation and spending).”

“This suggests that the debate about urban density, which always seeks more density in even the most built-up urban areas, as if density and reduced direct emissions had a linear relationship, is wrong-headed. The New Yorker writer David Owen, for instance, has popularized the view that “sustainability, if it can be achieved, will look a lot more like midtown Manhattan than like rural Vermont” (Owen 2009“ 58). But the biggest emissions reduction potential occurs well before midtown Manhattan density levels; Manhattan is a poor representation of what a low-carbon American city should aspire to.”

“Our data suggest that it would make far more sense to pursue the so-called “missing middle” of moderate urban density, which is far closer than Manhattan to the ideals that most Americans already seem to have, and which reflects levels that already exist in neighborhoods like Greenpoint or Crown Heights in New York, or much of South and West Philly in Philadelphia. Protecting those neighborhoods that do have medium density from gentrification, and increasing density in areas that are less dense, would reduce emissions and provide fair, broad access to low-carbon, energy-efficient urban living. That implies a regional focus on both affordable housing and densification, rather than endless battles over zoning already dense, central areas. That focus on regionalism and equity is compatible with a broader economic shift away from material production and towards public services, human connection, and leisure—the social and economic vision that urbanist and environmental thinkers have long proposed.”

cohen-ummel.txt · Last modified: 2019/07/03 11:54 by admin