Report Finds Lexington Has Largest Carbon Footprint, Los Angeles Has Second Smallest (With Big Caveats)

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For a brief explanation of what a "carbon footprint" is, head on over to our primer

Imagine my surprise when the first headline I read in today's LAT Environment section blared: "Los Angeles' carbon footprint is a light one -- sort of." Yes, according to a new report released by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Los Angeles ranked second only to Honolulu in having the nation's smallest carbon footprint. The city received plaudits for its strict buildings codes and tough utility pricing rules, which have helped moderate energy consumption. The report's big "loser"? Lexington, Kentucky, with its sprawl, high traffic, inefficient homes and high coal-fired power consumption, finished last in the rankings -- with an average per capita carbon footprint of 3.81 tons (versus a national average of 2.47 tons).

Any report that ranks Los Angeles second-best in the country must come with a few caveats, of course, as LAT's Margot Roosevelt explains (after a fair bit of good-humored ribbing of rival San Francisco):

But before the boasting starts, some words of caution: The calculations did not account for the fact that half the city's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Instead, Brookings used a state-wide average that included the hydroelectric and nuclear plants in Northern California.

Omitted from the data are emissions from industries and commercial buildings, and from local roads apart from federal highways.

The researchers also chose metropolitan statistical areas, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. Those areas may allow for a uniform geographical comparison, but in the case of the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area, that omitted commutes from as far as Ventura, San Bernardino or Riverside counties

Lest I spend too much time dwelling on these particular results, here were some of the report's general findings, as outlined by the NRDC's Deron Lovaas:

1) Large regions stack up pretty well in terms of per capita emissions. These regions account for two-thirds of U.S. population but only 56 percent of emissions from highway transportation and residential buildings in 2005.

2) Carbon emissions from these sectors are also growing slower than the national average in these major metro areas: From 2000-2005, they grew 7.5 percent vs. the national rise of 9.1 percent.

3) There are big variations in per capita emissions among these areas. The biggest contrast is Lexington-Honolulu, where an average resident in the former is responsible for 2.5 times as much carbon emissions as the latter (in transportation alone). Notably, the biggest per capita emitters are for the most part east of the Mississippi (with many in the South, as noted above), with Oklahoma City (high-emitter) and New York City (low-emitter) standing out as exceptions.

4) Development patterns and rail transit access matter. Compact, smart-growth development and the existence of rail transit are decent predictors of a city's ranking.

The AP's H. Josef Hebert also has a nice rundown here. While encouraging, it's obvious LA still has a (long) ways to go before it can rightfully (in my opinion) lay claim to that ranking. More public transit, a realistic congestion pricing scheme, more "green spaces": These are just a handful of the changes the city needs.

The report is well-worth reading in its entirety (if you have the time). Of particular relevance are the policy recommendations the authors end their study with. With the Lieberman-Warner climate bill in limbo and chances for some measurable progress slim until the next president steps in, we should at least be pushing the types of sound policy ideas advocated here and on other sites.

Via ::Los Angeles Times: Los Angeles' carbon footprint is a light one -- sort of (news website), ::Lexington Herald-Leader: Lexington tops list of enemies to environment (news website)

See also: ::The Carbon Footprint of a Renovation vs New Construction, ::New York City: Sustainable City?

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