Study: Urbanites are Greener than Suburbanites

But some cities, like Washington D.C., have plenty of room for improvement.


Cities thought to be centers of smog, gridlock, power-sucking high-rises and litter, and that's part of the reason that so many familes prefer the suburbs. Despite all of their perceived environmental problems, a recent study by the International Institute for Environment and Development has found that city dwellers generate far fewer CO2 emissions than folks who live in the suburbs or country.

Of the 12 cities in Asia, North America, South America and Europe that were studied, researchers found that metropolitan areas had smaller carbon footprints than the countryside, with two exceptions: "Production-oriented" cities Beijing and Shanghai, whose citizens emit more than the country's average. The cities' rank was determined by comparing the per capita emissions of residents in urban and rural areas against the national average.

Of the cities that were studied, perhaps the biggest surprise was that Washington, D.C. (where U.S. News is headquartered) fared the worst. Our per capita CO2 count was 19.7 tons - more than twice that of Glasgow, the city with the next-highest emissions. David Dodman, the leader of the study, attributes this to Washington's status as a commuter city with a high percentage of office buildings and a small amount of residents. Despite the larger footprint, D.C. residents are still 80% better than the U.S. average per capita CO2 emissions.

City dwellers emit less because the density of population encourages public transportation and communal office and living spaces that are often smaller than those in the suburbs. The study also notes that many carbon-consuming industries have been moved to rural areas or developing countries, while the city's residents still require and consume these goods. "Cities where the service sector dominates have outsourced carbon intensive industries to developing countries, yet are still voracious consumers of industrial products," says Jim Hall at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK. "There is a large discrepancy between production-based and consumptions-based metrics of emissions."

Moving to the city has a number of benefits beyond reducing one's carbon footprint. Last year, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Brookings Institution, and Center for Transit-Oriented Development developed an affordability index to help people decide if they could afford to live closer to the city. The index found that people who live close to transit, jobs, schools, and retail—typically in cities and inner-ring suburbs—spend up to $2,100 less per year on gasoline than residents of outer-ring suburbs. These savings are even greater for people who live in a city center and can take advantage of public transportation and walkable neighborhoods.

Below, the full list from the IIED study:

  1. Washington, D.C. – 19.7 tons of CO2 equivalent
  2. Glasgow, U.K. – 8.4 tons
  3. Toronto – 8.2 tons
  4. Shanghai – 8.1 tons
  5. New York City – 7.1 tons
  6. Beijing – 6.9 tons
  7. London – 6.2 tons
  8. Tokyo – 4.8 tons
  9. Seoul – 3.8 tons
  10. Barcelona – 3.4 tons
  11. Rio de Janeiro – 2.3 tons
  12. Sao Paulo, Brazil – 1.5 tons
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    Washington, DC

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