How Does Your City's Carbon Footprint Stack Up?


With its balmy climate and residents who would rather go to the beach than drive on an interstate, Honolulu has the smallest metropolitan carbon footprint in the United States.

By way of contrast, mix an icy Kentucky winter with coal-fired power plants and residents who often hit the highways, and you end up with the metro area of Lexington-Fayette, Ky., rated as having the largest carbon footprint in the nation.

These two extremes are part of a report issued Thursday by the Brookings Institution in Washington, which looks at the per capita carbon footprint of the 100 largest metro areas in the US, based on residential energy use and highway transportation. The smallest carbon emissions are generally in warmer areas or cities with a highly developed public transit system. Most are in the West.

The worst emitters are mainly in the mid-Southern and Midwestern parts of the US, areas subject to winter weather. Urban sprawl there has made for long commutes in automobiles, and most of the region's electricity comes from coal. The cost of energy in these areas is lower compared with metro regions with smaller carbon footprints.

The Brookings report is likely to be controversial since few cities want to be lumped at the bottom of the heap, and critics point out that it does not look at all aspects of carbon emissions. But the report may also help some cities and regions see how other areas are reducing their carbon emissions in their transportation systems, power generation, heating and cooling of homes, and even land use.

The report is coming out a week before debate is expected to begin in the US Senate on legislation that calls for a 70 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 and imposes a price on carbon emissions.

"To me, the greatest takeaways from the report are the relative efficiency of metropolitan and urban areas, the variation of their performance, and the multiple influences that determine that," says Mark Muro, policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. "Metros are responsible for a large amount of the nation's emissions but also offer the best prospects for large savings."

Partial data for emissions rankings

Mr. Muro is quick to acknowledge that the data are only partial, in large part because of the difficulty in obtaining accurate information. The two major sources of carbon-emissions data are 2000 and 2005 US Department of Transportation statistics on highway usage as well as information obtained from Platts, a subsidiary of McGraw-Hill, on residential energy usage. But the rankings do not include traffic on local roads or the emissions of commercial, industrial, or government users.

"We really have a fragmentary picture of the country," Muro says. "This is the beginning of the conversation."

Despite the shortcomings in the report, some groups still believe it has value. "It illustrates the importance of local governments since emissions are local and so are solutions," says Annie Strickler, a spokeswoman for ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives), an umbrella organization of local governments working on sustainability issues.

ICLEI, which is based in Oakland, Calif., is in the process of a more comprehensive rating of cities on sustainability. It will try to cover all sources of carbon emissions.

Some of the Brookings ratings may appear puzzling. For example, the Los Angeles area is rated second behind Hawaii. The L.A. basin is famed for smog and traffic backups. However, Muro says, the research underscored the density of the area's build-out. "While there are not a lot of tall buildings, it has places with a lot of small lots, master-planned large developments, and an increasing density," he says. "And the state is increasingly pulling out of dirty energy sources and requiring lighter, low-carbon sourcing."

Nine out of 10 of the lowest emitting metro areas are west of the Mississippi. New York, ranked No. 4, is the only city east of the river. Like L.A., New York has a smoggy atmosphere in the summer.

"New York beats a place like Lexington-Fayette because we have transit operations and greater energy efficiency with the density of the apartment buildings," says Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, a national infrastructure plan. "We also have high energy rates which impacts efficiency in a different way," says Ms. Todorovich, who is also a staff member at the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit trying to improve the quality of life in the New York metro area.

Largest emitters burn coal

The largest emitters have some common traits as well. Eight out of 10 are east of the Mississippi. Three of the metro areas are in Kentucky. Almost all the areas use coal for energy. "Many of them have not embraced mass transit until recently," Muro says.

The highest-emitting metro area, Lexington, Ky., sees its environmental weakness as an economic strength. "Our proximity to the eastern coalfields has provided us with some of the nation's lowest electrical costs," says Cheryl Taylor, the city's first commissioner of environmental quality in an e-mailed statement. "Our central location at the intersection of two major interstates attracts significant truck traffic."

However, Ms. Taylor says, the city is increasing funding for alternative transportation and mass transit and is trying to halt sprawl with development downtown.

At least one mayor of a major emitting city, Mark Mallory of Cincinnati, was elected in part because of his concern about the environment. The Cincinnati City Council is now considering 80 recommendations to reduce carbon emissions. Mr. Mallory was unavailable for comment.

Cities with the largest carbon footprints:

  1. Lexington-Fayette, Ky.

  2. Indianapolis

  3. Cincinnati-Middletown, Ohio-Ky.-Ind.

  4. Toledo, Ohio

  5. Louisville, Ky.-Ind.

  6. Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro, Tenn.

  7. St. Louis

  8. Oklahoma City

  9. Harrisburg-Carlisle, Pa.

  10. Knoxville, Tenn.

Cities with the smallest carbon footprints:

  1. Honolulu

  2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana,Calif.

  3. Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton, Ore.-Wash.

  4. New York-northern New Jersey-Long Island, N.Y.-N.J.-Pa.

  5. Boise-Nampa, Idaho

  6. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Wash.

  7. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif.

  8. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, Calif.

  9. El Paso, Texas

  10. San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, Calif.

Note: This survey covered the 100 largest metro areas in the US. The rankings are for 2005.

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