Per Capita Energy Consumption

This story got a lot of coverage in the news yesterday.  To make a long story short, the Brookings Institution (one those “think tanks” that thinks what its corporate sponsors pays it to think), released a study that shows that per capita energy consumption (and corresponding “carbon footprint”) is lower in big cities than it is in more rural areas. 

While cities are hot spots for global warming, people living in them turn out to be greener than their country cousins.

Each resident of the largest 100 largest metropolitans areas is responsible on average for 2.47 tons of carbon dioxide in energy consumption each year, 14 percent below the 2.87 ton U.S. average, researchers at the Brookings Institution say in a report being released Thursday.

This seemed to come as a surprise to the study’s authors.

Those 100 cities still account for 56 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide pollution. But their greater use of mass transit and population density reduce the per person average. “It was a surprise the extent to which emissions per capita are lower,” Marilyn Brown, a professor of energy policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-author of the report, said in an interview.

 This shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of population density in driving down per capita consumption.  People in cities aren’t “greener” because out of any conscious effort to reduce energy consumption.  It’s due entirely to the fact that they’re forced to crowd together.  More live in smaller dwellings, like apartments and condos, have shorter commutes and are forced to use mass transit due to traffic congestion.  Would residents of Los Angeles prefer the more wide open quality of life enjoyed by people living in Lexington, Kentucky?  Most surely would, but it’s not an option for them.  They’ve been crowded out of that kind of life style. 

Now, obviously, this is a good thing from the perspective of conserving natural resources and minimizing impact on the environment.  But this declining per capita consumption is a very bad thing for employment.  Falling per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity, results in rising unemployment and poverty. 

You have to ask yourself, what was Brookings’ motivation for doing such a study?  It seems clear to me:  Brookings’ corporate sponsors want to defuse concern about global warming and especially want to cast doubt on the growing suspicion that a growing population is an environmental threat.  To suggest that energy consumption is lowest in our most densely populated locales is to also suggest that we can solve the global warming crisis by actually increasing our population density. 

Don’t buy it.  There’s no greater threat to our environment, our limited supply of natural resources and especially to our economy, as rising unemployment and poverty take their toll, than further population growth.  No amount of technological solutions can be effective if population growth wipes out any improvements in efficiency.  It’s time to focus on the one and only solution that offers any hope of a sustainable high quality of life in the future – stabilizing our population. 

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