Households in neighborhoods like this one in San Francisco tend to emit fewer greenhouse gases on average than those in suburbs and exurbs across the country.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
We usually think about our carbon footprint in terms of individual choices: How often do we fly? Do we eat meat? Have we purchased an electric car?
But household emissions also often depend on factors that we have limited control over, such as the density of our neighborhoods, whether public transportation is available near us or whether electricity in our region comes from coal-burning plants or emissions-free solar plants.
“Consumption is not the individual act we all think it is,” Siobhan Foley, head of sustainable consumption at C40, a network of the world’s biggest cities committed to addressing climate change, told The New York Times. “We treat it like a personal choice, but it’s shaped by all these other factors.”
My colleagues recently published a set of maps that illustrate this idea in stark relief. The maps, based on research from U.C. Berkeley, estimate the emissions of an average household in a neighborhood based on electricity use, car ownership, income levels, consumption patterns and more.
A clear pattern emerges: Across the U.S., households in denser neighborhoods close to city centers tend to be responsible for fewer planet-warming greenhouse gases, on average, than households in the rest of the country. Residents in these areas typically drive less because jobs and stores are nearby and they can more easily walk, bike or take public transit. And they’re more likely to live in smaller homes or apartments that require less energy to heat and cool.
Moving further from city centers, average emissions per household typically increase as homes get bigger and residents tend to drive longer distances. Though what we eat and buy and how often we travel are important factors in determining our carbon footprint, driving and housing are frequently the largest contributors.
“What this shows so clearly is these large-scale patterns,” said Nadja Popovich, a data and graphics reporter on the Climate desk at The Times. In “city after city, place after place, the same thing repeats, with lower-emissions cores and higher-emissions suburbs and exurbs.”
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Take California’s big cities. The average emissions of a household in central San Francisco are one-third to one-half as much as those in, for example, Los Altos, Mill Valley or Atherton. Similarly, the average emissions of a household in downtown Los Angeles are one-third to one-half as much as those in Calabasas, Rancho Palos Verdes or Malibu.
Households in these suburbs tend to be higher-income, which increases their climate footprint further because people in them can buy more stuff — appliances, cars, furnishings, electronic gadgets — and travel more, all of which comes with related emissions.
But there are also major structural factors: For decades in the United States, a majority of new homes have been built in the suburbs and, increasingly, the exurbs, where climate footprints are larger. As a result, for many people today, it is often easier and cheaper to find a home in a high-emissions community than in a lower-emissions one.
The data suggests that building denser housing in walkable areas with good access to transit is crucial if U.S. cities want to lower their climate footprints. But reducing the climate impact of cities doesn’t mean filling every city and town with huge skyscrapers, experts said.
For example, changes to the layout of suburban communities, such as locating stores, restaurants and community centers closer to homes, can reduce automobile travel and bring down a community’s emissions.
“We really didn’t want it to be something where you’re blamed for your personal footprint,” Nadja told me about the project. “It’s really about these patterns you see across place and space, because decades and decades of policies have shaped our cities to look the way we do.”
Look up your neighborhood’s carbon footprint.
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Our favorite 2022 climate coverage.
The rest of the news
582,462 and counting: This year, reporters and photographers from The New York Times shadowed the Point-in-Time Count — the annual tally of those who live outside or in homeless shelters, which takes place through the last 10 days of January — to examine homelessness in vastly different places in America, including Los Angeles.
Eye drops recall: The manufacturer of EzriCare Artificial Tears, over-the-counter eye drops, said it was recalling the product after health authorities linked the product to a drug-resistant bacteria strain.
Musk trial: A jury decided on Friday that Elon Musk was not liable for losses suffered by investors after he posted messages on Twitter in 2018 saying he had secured the funding to take Tesla private.
Mount Baldy: Mount Baldy, which towers above Los Angeles, looking like a winter wonderland to millions of people living below, has one of the worst records for death and injury in the country. Rescue crews have been called out 14 times since Christmas to look for lost climbers, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Malibu fraud: An actress and a hairdresser feigned friendship with a wealthy doctor, moved into his beachfront home in Malibu and plied him with drugs while defrauding him of more than $2.7 million before his death, according to a federal indictment.
Harry’s cafe: Harry Styles superfans have been making the pilgrimage to Beachwood Cafe, a mom-and pop eatery in Beachwood Canyon, Los Angeles, since Styles briefly name-checked the restaurant in a song in 2019. The lyric has radically changed the clientele — and fortunes — of the cafe.
Monterey Park: Three survivors who narrowly escaped the mass shooting at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park reflect in a video on life after tragedy as their community returns to the dance floor.
Big Sur: The succession of storms last month that left a 20-mile rugged stretch of Big Sur cut off from the rest of the state after landslides blocked the highway is another reminder of the perils and adventure of Central Coast life.
Tulare County killings: Two men suspected of killing four generations of the same family last month were captured on Friday near the house where the crime occurred in the Central Valley.
Synagogue disturbance: A man was charged on Friday with disturbing a religious gathering after the police said he walked into a San Francisco synagogue with a handgun and apparently fired blanks before fleeing.
Fentanyl: Three men and a teenager were charged with conspiracy and multiple drug-related felonies after the authorities seized about 20 pounds of fentanyl at multiple locations in San Francisco and Oakland, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
What we’re eating
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Liz Sampson, who lives in Oak View. Liz recommends a trip to Ojai, especially during the Ojai Music Festival, scheduled this year for June:
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
We’re looking for recommendations for where to see the best art in California. What galleries have you visited over and over? Which exhibits do you insist on taking all out-of-town visitors?
Email us at [email protected] with your suggestions, and a few lines on why it’s your pick.
And before you go, some good news
With Valentine’s Day coming up, Times editors and reporters shared their favorite romantic restaurants. Jodi Kantor, an investigative reporter, said she fell in love with her husband 25 years ago over a menu:
“He took me to Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, Calif. The dessert menus arrived. A worn soundtrack started playing in my head: enough, no, don’t, bad.
‘I think we should get three,’ he said.”
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Briana Scalia and Maia Coleman contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].