Cities are often seen as major carbon-emitters: Densely populated streets full of cars, towering buildings that keep their lights on late into the night, and people — tons of people — all using energy in their daily lives. But it’s not necessarily true. New research (PDF) looked at cities in the United Kingdom and found that carbon footprints in cities are likely to be smaller in high-density cities, and diminishes even further the larger families get.
So what makes a British city-dweller’s carbon footprint rise? How much a person earns and how much education they’ve obtained, the study suggests, are significant factors:
The impact of high or low density living remains limited; instead, carbon footprints can be comparatively high or low across density gradients depending on the location-specific socio-demographic, infrastructural and geographic characteristics of the area under consideration. We show that the carbon footprint of cities and other human settlements in the UK is mainly determined by socio-economic rather than geographic and infrastructural drivers at the spatial aggregation of our analysis. It increases with growing income, education and car ownership as well as decreasing household size. Income is not more important than most other socio-economic determinants of the carbon footprint.
The researchers chart out this point:
This new research is consistent with other studies. One such study also found that here in the U.S., your carbon footprint can be hugely influenced by where you live: In California, where clean energy is abundant, one uses significantly less carbon than in the Midwest, which relies more heavily on fossil fuels. It also underlines the idea that the wealthiest are the biggest carbon emitters.