City Dwellers Have Huge Carbon Footprints, Because They Buy So Much

The conventional wisdom is that urban living is low impact. Not if you calculate carbon usage fairly, says a new study.


City dwellers are carbon footprint snobs. While bemoaning suburbanites who drive to the Walmart in gas-guzzling SUVs, urbanites talk about how their dense living and public transportation makes them the purest of all. But a new paper makes the case that city dwellers are benefiting from an unfair allocation of carbon footprints. Moreover, it’s not really where you live that has any effect on your carbon footprint. It’s how much you buy.

The standard way of calculating footprints assigns the emissions wherever they’re produced. So, a television factory in the country causes everyone living nearby have enormous footprints, even if they don’t own a TV. The wealthy people in the city buying the flat screen, though, they aren’t docked for any of that carbon. But Jukka Heinonen and Seppo Junnila from Aalto University, Finland realized this was a silly–if not offensive–way to measure footprints. They looked at  what happens in three Finnish cities when carbon footprints were reassigned to the people who were using the products of those emissions.

And what they found should wipe that smirk right off the faces of self-righteous bike-riding urbanites. The rich people who buy those flat screens all live in cities. “It would seem that the larger and the denser the city, the higher the carbon footprint (carbon consumption as we call it, the consumption based carbon footprint),” says Heinonen. “Also, the carbon consumption is on higher level in the city center compared to the suburbs.”

The biggest driver is housing energy–when emissions are assigned to giant apartment buildings, they end up quite wasteful–but just buying stuff can quickly override the benefits of energy efficiency in your building. “The volume of consumption may easily overrule the effect of low-carbon building. Also, in the cities the household sizes tend to decrease and thus a higher share of the emissions of the building are allocated to each resident.”

What can the poor, polluting apartment renter do to get them even with those SUV drivers out in the country? Mostly, it’s out of your hands: The city needs to make regulations forcing buildings to be more efficient. But you could also consider buying less. “I don’t try to say that the standard of living we have should be reduced,” says Heinonen. “But it is quite certain that some of the consumption of most of the consumers is not connected to their well being.”

Image from Flickr user Ed Yourdon

About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Ideas section, formerly