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LA's compact carbon footprint, with caveats

Sunday, June 1, 2008

postcard_final.jpgOn a list of the greenest cities in the U.S., as measured by global warming impact per person, you expect to find Portland, Seattle and San Francisco — all relatively compact, transit- and bike-friendly places. New York City makes the list, with its network of subways and throngs of pedestrians. But the second-greenest city in the country is . . . Los Angeles?

That's right, according to a new study by the prestigious Brookings Institution that ranks the 100 largest U.S. metro areas by their carbon footprints from transportation and residential use. But as Margo Jefferson reports in the LA Times, there are more than a few caveats:

[B]efore the boasting starts, some words of caution: The calculations did not account for the fact that half the city's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Instead, Brookings used a state-wide average that included the hydroelectric and nuclear plants in Northern California.

Omitted from the data are emissions from industries and commercial buildings, and from local roads apart from federal highways.

The researchers also chose metropolitan statistical areas, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. Those areas may allow for a uniform geographical comparison, but in the case of the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area, that omitted commutes from as far as Ventura, San Bernardino or Riverside counties.

"The data is fuzzy," said Andrea Sarzynski, a senior research analyst at Brookings. "We do the best we can."

Other than New York, each of the 10 cities with the heaviest carbon footprints were east of the Mississippi. That's partly because Eastern cities are more reliant on dirty-burning coal for their energy. (Don't be so smug, Westerners: We rank better because our region uses a lot of nuclear power.) The East is also colder in winter and hotter in summer than the West Coast, requiring greater use of heating and air conditioning. That's one reason Honolulu ranks No. 1.

The heaviest carbon footprints in the country, according to the study, belong to Cincinnati (98), Indianapolis (99) and Lexington, KY (100). Washington, DC (great mass transit, but also sprawling suburbs, cold winters and hot summers) is 89th.