Conventional wisdom says that urban dwellers have smaller carbon footprints because they live in smaller, more energy efficient homes and rely less on private cars for transportation compared to people in rural areas. But in some cases your carbon footprint may have more to do with how wealthy you are than with where you live, according to a Swiss study.
Researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne analyzed data from the Swiss government’s Household Budget Survey detailing how much individual households spend on various goods and services. They combined this with information on greenhouse gas emissions linked to different economic sectors to estimate the carbon footprint associated with each category of expenditures for each household.
Overall, the rural carbon footprint is about 20% larger than the urban one, the researchers report in the journal Environmental Research Communications. Rural residents do have larger carbon footprints related to transportation and home heating. But city dwellers have larger carbon footprints related to food, clothing, cultural activities, and air travel. Basically, living in the city makes it easier to for people to consume – and so they do.
Intriguingly, though, the rural-urban divide is only the second most important driver of a Swiss person’s carbon footprint. The most important factor is household income: wealthier people tend to have larger carbon footprints, regardless of their habitat.
Household size also contributes to emissions, the researchers found. People living in two-person households tend to have higher per-capita carbon footprints, and per-capita emissions fall as household size grows.
And the good news is that the average carbon footprint in Switzerland overall decreased from 2008 to 2014, as did carbon footprints in both rural and urban areas.
The association with wealth is particularly tight when it comes to emissions that have to do with consumer behavior. In contrast, heating and transport emissions are more about necessity. “This suggests that Swiss residents across the country have relatively similar lifestyles and consumption habits, and are constrained only by their financial resources,” the researchers write.
One weakness of the study is that the emissions estimates are based only on spending. It could be that wealthier people are buying more expensive items, not more of them – or even that they are paying a premium for items with a smaller carbon footprint. “Therefore, in reality, the relationship between income and environmental impact may not be as linear as it currently appears,” the researchers note.
Still, similar results have emerged from other European cities. And the findings suggest that cities can’t rest on their laurels of density and good public transit. When it comes to decarbonization, infrastructure isn’t enough: the next step is to reshape household and consumer behavior.
“People consume without much thought because they can afford to and enjoy doing it. But we need to consider whether we’re overconsuming,” the study’s lead author Melissa Pang said in a statement.
Source: Pang M. et al. “Urban carbon footprints: a consumption-based approach for Swiss households.” Environmental Research Communications 2019.
Image: Andrii Starunskyi