Research and discussion for citizens and decision makers

The role of metropolitan regions in the national climate change strategy

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A new report from the Brookings Institution, “Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America,” shows that residents of metropolitan regions have a smaller carbon footprint than the average American. It also gives a series of federal policy recommendations to further capitalize on the efficiencies of urban America as one component of the nation’s global warming strategy. The authors find that compact development and transit are major determinants of the variation in per capita carbon emissions between different metropolitan areas. The recommendations focus on national transportation policy, which is currently heating up leading to the reauthorization of the transportation bill in 2009.

The Houston region ranks 35th overall out of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country, with an estimated 2.292 metric tons of residential and transportation carbon emissions per person per year. This actually represents a decrease of 8.61 percent from 2000 to 2005 and is comprised of a decrease in both residential and transportation related emissions, but with a greater decrease in residential at 14.2 percent. The report does not specifically address the causes of these reductions, but possible explanations could be the surge in dense development in recent years and the rise of green building popularity. As the market has pushed the region toward a more urban future with better choices available across the region, it is becoming increasingly possible to choose a lower carbon footprint in the Houston region.

Despite this apparent positive trend, the region is by no means clean and green. Ranking basically in the middle of metropolitan America, which still by far rules the world in terms of per capita carbon emissions, there is tremendous room for improvement. Most of the other top 10 metropolitan areas have a better carbon footprint than the Houston region, but some, like Atlanta and Dallas, are worse. Houston’s original transit-oriented urban form, which makes up the core group of neighborhoods surrounding downtown, allows residents the option to live a much less auto-dependent lifestyle and substantially cuts the region’s average carbon footprint. Dallas and Atlanta do not have this large traditional urban area to balance out the inefficient suburbs that developed after 1945.

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