U.S. carbon footprint ranking: The hotspots are in the East

  • Washington, D.C. – Public policy organization Brookings has released a detailed per-capita footprint ranking of 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. The study reveals that residents living in the eastern half of the country produce much more carbon emissions than residents in the West. In the most extreme case, Lexington, Kentucky, has a per-capita emissions rating that is 2.5 times higher than Honolulu, Hawaii. Brookings found that these differences can often be tracked down to development patterns, rail transit, fuels used to generate electricity, energy prices, and weather.   


    A general look through the ranking reveals an overall mixed bag of emission trends, with some areas having succeeded in reducing their carbon footprint, while other areas have seen dramatic increases. For example, Grand Rapids, Michigan has seen its per-capita carbon emissions drop by 14.7% between 2000 and 2005 and San Antonio, Texas, achieved a 9.9% reduction in the same time frame. On the other end of the spectrum, energy use per capita surged in Chattanooga, Tennessee (+48%), Trenton, New Jersey (+48%) and in Sarasota, Florida (+30%). The scenario is equally divided among the largest areas: Heavy hitters such as Los Angeles and Chicago were able to keep their footprint at least somewhat stable (+0.35% and +0.68%, respectively), while the New York City area saw its carbon emissions grow by 7.7% per capita.

    The top three metropolitan areas in terms of the lowest power consumption were Honolulu, Los Angeles and Portland, while Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Lexington-Fayette came in last. The average resident in Honolulu created 1.356 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2005, which compares to 3.455 metric tons to residents of Lexington-Fayette.

    If there is any trend in Brookings’ ranking, however, then it is certainly that the highest per-capita energy consumption results are in the eastern half of the U.S.  The organization did not provide exact reasons for this trend, but stated that that the carbon footprint sizes vary due to development patterns, rail transit, fuels used to generate electricity, energy prices, and weather. For example, the mild climate on the West Coast gives California residents and advantage over people on the West Coast or in the Midwest in terms of energy that is required for heating and cooling. And, of course, the proximity of heavy industry or a port dropped a region’s ranking – Jacksonville, for example, came in at #80. However, it is interesting to note that Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry in the San Jose-Santa Clara area fared well at #23 and a per capita rating that decreased by 7.4% between 200 and 2005.  

    According to Brookings, the average resident of a U.S. metropolitan area caused carbon emissions of 2.235 metric tons in 2005. This number consists of 1.31 metric tons highway use (1.004 metric tons from autos and 0.305 metric tons from trucks) and 0.925 metric tons of residential energy use (0.614 metric tons from electricity and 0.314 metric tons from residential fuels). To put these numbers into perspective, U.S. government numbers suggest that 1 acre of  trees can handle about 1.1 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year – which would mean that we would need two acres of trees for each resident of a U.S. metropolitan area to equalize created emissions.