When the Antiplanner read the headline–“Suburban sprawl cancels carbon-footprint savings of dense urban cores”–I thought this was going to be just another smart-growth study. But the study by University of California (Berkeley) researchers actually makes some good points.
People living in dense centers of large urban areas tend to have low carbon footprints. But those dense centers are invariably surrounded by low-density suburbs, as if dense areas cannot exist in isolation from low-density areas. (The reverse isn’t true: some low-density areas, such as Phoenix and San Jose, have no dense centers.)
So is the solution to increase suburban densities, as smart-growth advocates claim? Nope. “Increasing population density in suburbs is even more problematic,” says one of the researchers. “Surprisingly, population dense suburbs have significantly higher carbon footprints than less dense suburbs, due largely to higher incomes and resulting consumption.” I was wondering when someone else would notice that: density increases land prices which makes housing less affordable for low-income people. Moreover, those dense suburbs themselves are surrounded by lower-density suburbs of their own.
The real solution (if you think greenhouse gas emissions are a problem) is to reduce emissions at the source rather than to try to change lifestyles. “Solar photovoltaic systems, electric vehicles and energy-efficient technologies” make more sense than densification.
Major caveat: the emissions estimates are not based on actual measurements but on formulas that take into account incomes, the sources of electricity, vehicle ownership rates, and population density. I am dubious about the reliability of some of these formulas. For example, on the study’s household energy carbon footprint map, Arkansas stands out like a beacon of clean energy surrounded by dark forces. Yet Arkansas gets most of its electricity from fossil fuels just like its neighbors.
More important, the claim that someone can “know” everyone else’s carbon footprint lends credence to those who want to centrally plan the nation’s energy economy. This is especially dubious when the “knowledge” is based on calculated formulae rather than actual measurements.
If the formulae say that density reduces emissions, then policy makers will press to increase densities. But if the formulae say that higher incomes increase emissions, will the policy makers push to reduce people’s incomes? They may not say so out loud, but it is all too easy for elites (who never imagine their incomes will suffer) to support a complicated plan that is calculated to save the planet when all it really does is reduce people’s wealth and incomes.
Those who believe we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should take a completely different approach. McKinsey says we can meet nearly half of our emission-reduction targets by taking steps that actually pay for themselves, such as improving home insulation and coordinating traffic signals. Let’s do all of those things first. Some other things may be accomplished at a very low cost of, say, $10 to $20 per ton of emissions abated. Since that’s roughly the going rate in carbon markets, let’s do those things next. It may not pay to do anything more, but until we do the things that do pay, it is ridiculous to be talking about policies that are likely to cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per ton of abated emissions.