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Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet


Your Neighborhood’s Emissions

But so does income — wealthier households tend to buy more stuff, including flights abroad, which means more emissions.

The big takeaways

An important lesson from the research is that housing policy matters a lot for climate change — and it often gets neglected.

Since the end of World War II, Americans have built far more homes in suburban and exurban areas than in urban centers. Lots of factors were at play, including heavy government investment in new roads and highways, white flight away from cities as well as consumer demand for bigger houses. But the end result is that it’s often a lot easier and cheaper to buy a home in a high-emissions suburb or exurb than in a low-emissions city center.

On top of that, many cities artificially limit the number of homes that can be built in denser, transit-friendly neighborhoods, through policies like zoning that favors larger single-family homes or regulations that mandate minimum amounts of vehicle parking. San Francisco is very green on the emissions maps, but local rules and opposition make it extremely difficult to build new housing in the city — so people are getting pushed out to places where they have to drive more. The end result is worse for the climate (and in California, as we explored in an earlier article, the same dynamic pushes more people into wildfire-prone areas).

For many cities, then, the most effective climate policy they can pursue is to build more homes in low-emissions neighborhoods, so that more people have the option of living someplace where they don’t need to drive as much. Not everyone will want to move to denser parts of San Francisco or Berkeley, of course. But the fact that it’s so expensive in those neighborhoods suggests that demand is a lot higher than supply at the moment.

The new research offers some guidance for how local governments could pursue more climate-friendly housing policy, said Chris Jones, director of the CoolClimate Network at UC Berkeley, which developed the methodology behind the data set. For one, not every city needs massive new skyscrapers. Even some smaller town centers in suburban neighborhoods can be quite sustainable and might be good places for more housing.

But, Dr. Jones said, the biggest takeaway is that where and how people live isn’t purely a matter of individual choice. While the research could help inspire people to shrink their personal carbon footprint, he said, “policy is by far the biggest lever that we have.” And housing is a big one.

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