Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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.

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9 thoughts on “Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

  1. paul

    An excellent piece from the Antiplanner and one that I feel I can forward to planners that will be taken seriously as it has no name calling just a well thought out argument with references.

    For those skeptical of climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions: In any scholarly meeting anyone who says global warming or climate change is a myth will have anything else they state ignored. Instead stating that these “smart growth” is not a cost effective way of reducing greenhouse gases” will be accepted as being much more valid.

  2. Dan

    Wow – well done Randal.

    We’ve discussed pieces of this puzzle several times before here, Randal, thank you for bringing it together. Easy ways that can reduce GHG emissions are more building envelope insulation, retrofitting awnings over S and W windows, loosening zoning to allow retail near homes, smarter design in buildings e.g. to reduce wasted space in high rooms, solving the final mile problem, etc. It can be done.

    DS

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    I strongly concur with Dan and paul. One of the best. Posts. Ever. by The Antiplanner.

    The Antiplanner wrote (emphasis added):

    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.

    Yes, I think that has been one of the perverse “benefits” of the Great Recession – some reduction in emissions by people that do not have jobs to go to, and do not have money to insure and fuel their vehicles.

    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.

    Agreed.

    Regarding traffic signals, getting them timed correctly is pretty cheap and easy to do, though the signals should be timed again after a few years.

    There are some places where signals should be entirely replaced by grade-separated interchanges, even if converting a street or highway to a freeway is not appropriate. Another (lower-cost) possibility is to replace signals with properly engineered roundabouts. Interchanges and roundabouts, when properly designed, make things better for all users of the transportation system, including bicyclists and pedestrians, and reduce the amount of time that vehicles have to spend idling while they wait for intersection capacity.

  4. OFP2003

    If you’re against pollution, just be against pollution. If we hook our anti-pollution train to poorly-thought-out theories based on insufficient data like Anthropomorphic Global Warming then we’ll stay stuck on an unused siding for some time.

  5. Ohai

    The observation that US cities tend to be surrounded by suburbs of decreasing density outwards from the core doesn’t seem particularly profound. I’m not sure it follows, though, that, “dense areas cannot exist in isolation from low-density areas.”
    Also, I’m not sure who’s talking about “increasing suburban densities” for its own sake. If you expect your region’s total population to grow, I think there’s a legitimate question of how much it will grow outwards into the low-density suburbs versus how much it will grow in the dense core. It stands to reason that your carbon footprint will grow more slowly as a function of population increase if more of the growth is happening in the dense, carbon-efficient core than in the sprawling outer suburbs.
    Parts of New York City’s dense core, Queens, for example, were once sparsely populated farmland. Presumably if these areas had stayed low density they’d now appear as red as the suburbs of Long Island or Connecticut on the carbon footprint map instead of their current low-carbon, light green. Is it unreasonable to expect that as cities grow their suburbs will continue to grow more dense?

  6. Dan

    Speaking of making a hash out of major, widespread public policy:

    we can meet nearly half of our emission-reduction targets by taking steps that actually pay for themselves, such as improving home insulation

    This is one of the wedges on Socolow and Pacala’s wedges for policy changes. Int’l Building Code has excellent standards and many cities are adopting it for insulation. Great Britain needs to insulate its drafty old homes to meet future emission targets for GHG reduction, and implemented the Green Deal to insulate it’s homes. They – as they say – buggered it.

    It is very hard to turn a steaming ship. We have to figure out how to do it, soon.

    DS

  7. Meso

    A very nice article, although I’ll take a pass on the $10/20 per ton – do the free stuff. Spending more is folly, even harmful to the very poor of the world.

    It is unfortunately, though, that darn near everything these days is tied to “global warming” or the nonsensical “climate change.” Even my engineering magazines are full of green this and green that, and virtually none of it makes practical sense. Scientific American has become almost a pure propaganda magazine as a result.

    I once did a Google scholar search and found that almost every area of scientific “research” is blighted by this stuff. For example, over a dozen studies linking surfing and global warming.

    These days, “green” in a title stands for nauseatingly tiring.

  8. Sandy Teal

    How much of this environmentally sainted dense inner city housing is middle class families? Isn’t most of it wealthy or hipsters or poor? Vast numbers of people move to the suburbs because the inner city is no place to raise kids.

  9. LazyReader

    If carbon dioxide is so bad, why do people who grow shit in greenhouses purposely pump more CO2 into their greenhouses, if you see advertisements in magazines, ironically “Mother Earth News” and such they sell units. Made in USA, burns propane or natural gas and uses extractors and pumps carbon into the house raising the CO2 concentration to as high as 1,000 parts per million or more. The environmentalists keep saying that higher CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere would have horrible consequences for agriculture because the plants are not suited to grow in these high concentrations. If that’s the case explain the crops, no different than the ones outside are growing bigger and faster.

    In 1987 an experiment was performed by Dr. Sherwood Idso, orange trees were grown in enclosures, one of which was open to and contained a standard atmosphere given the amount of CO2 the time the experiment was run (300-320 ppm). The other enclosure had twice the amount of carbon pumped into the enclosure (600 ppm). After several years, the growth of the orange trees and weight of the fruit harvested were closely monitored. There is no way to truly know how trees will respond to long-term atmospheric CO2 enrichment without actually doing a long-term experiment and the experiment runs even today. All and all, the enriched trees suffered no ill and produced 180% greater biomass than the tree’s grown in a normal atmosphere. We may need the benefit of CO2 enrichment in the future in order to feed future populations.

    Generally speaking throughout much of Earth’s history, glaciers are rare. Because back then the temperature was warmer compared to today. For nearly 90% of the last 100 million years where much of what we consume evolved, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was higher than it is now. For several millennia after the end of the last Ice Age, Paleo-trees found buried in the tundra of North America and Europe indicated the climate was considerably warmer in order to permit the growth of trees in what is now frozen tundra. As much as twelve degree’s warmer than even now. What does that mean regarding sea ice in the Arctic? It was gone, completely in summer. Despite this total absence of ice, the polar bear survived, so did the walrus. Inuit culture flourished because they could farm for their sustenance. And human civilization radiated Northward.

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