FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE  |  A PressPac Instant Replay*

ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: February 05, 2014

Suburban sprawl accounts for 50 percent of U.S. household carbon footprint

"Spatial Distribution of U.S. Household Carbon Footprints Reveals Suburbanization Undermines Greenhouse Gas Benefits of Urban Population Density"
Environmental Science & Technology

Many U.S. cities are taking steps to grow urban centers in an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But a challenge is the significant carbon footprint of spacious suburban living, which in many areas, may be cancelling out these efforts. The report, appearing in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, found that about half of the country’s household carbon footprint comes from people living in the suburbs.

Christopher Jones and Daniel M. Kammen point out that U.S. households, though they only comprise 4.3 percent of the global population, are responsible for about 20 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, which are driving climate change. In response, many governors and mayors across the country have pledged to reduce their states’ and cities’ emissions. But more information on the size and composition of household carbon footprints is needed to inform policies to make these reductions happen. A few studies have helped fill in some gaps, but they’re mostly small in scale and not broadly applicable. Jones and Kammen set out to paint a bigger picture.

They built an analytic model using national survey data to estimate average household carbon footprints for over 30,000 zip codes and 10,000 cities and towns in all 50 U.S. states. Their technique integrates a wide range of sectors, including transportation, household energy use and consumption of food, goods and services. The researchers found a number of surprising nuances. For example, Jones and Kammen found that population-dense suburbs have significantly higher carbon footprints on average than lower density suburbs, and there is a huge range across cities. As a result, they conclude that “an entirely new approach of highly tailored, community-scale carbon management is urgently needed.” They have developed communication and estimation tools for public use at http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/maps and http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/carboncalculator.

The authors acknowledge funding from the California Air Resources Board and the National Science Foundation.

The suburban lifestyle in the U.S. is responsible for a huge portion of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Credit: Pavel Losevsky/iStock/Thinkstock