The prevailing belief has been that dense metropolitan areas produce less carbon emissions per capita than less dense rural areas. The proximity of services, availability of public transportation and density of buildings have been seen as energy efficient in comparison to suburban single-family homes that require private vehicle commutes. However, a recent study out of Finland contradicts the role of density in determining carbon footprint. The researchers argue that carbon footprint is more closely related to consumption behavior and income, rather than density.
Jukka Heinonen and Seppo Junnila of Aalto University in Finland conducted a study that shows a strong correlation between consumption of goods and carbon footprint, Reuters reports. In fact, the article states, there is nearly no correlation between where someone lives and their carbon footprint. What truly matters is an individual’s consumer behavior.
“The main contributor is not so much about the type of housing or the place that he or she lives,” Heinonen explains. “The consumption of goods and services cause carbon emission. The correlation between income and emissions is quite high and it’s shown that when consumption increases, emissions increase.”
The study is a life-cycle comparison of emissions in two metropolitan areas: Helsinki and Tampere. Both cities have a dense urban core, as well as two surrounding suburban regions, as described by The Infrastructurist. “The researchers included typical variables like building and transportation energy use in their analysis, but also added consumption factors such as leisure goods and services.”
“If you buy electronics, cars, home appliances, they are mostly produced abroad,” Heinonen explained in an interview with Reuters. “If you allocate (the emissions) to the people that are living there, it’s a bit biased picture that you get, because the people that are then made responsible for the emissions are not the ones that consume the products.”
“Across the board, private transportation produces more carbon than public transportation, but a rural dwellers’ car trips may be canceled out by a life with fewer possessions,” GOOD magazine further explains.
Measuring an individual’s carbon emissions through consumption patterns is perhaps a more accurate method in determining global impact. However, city centers are not economically homogeneous, and furthermore, demographics change. And although the study has found concrete results that density is not the main factor in determining carbon footprint, it makes a less determined statement on income.
“The rest of the carbon categories, the consumption of goods and services, reflect clearly the effect of income on the emissions,” the study explains. “However, this part of the carbon consumption was not the focus of this study, and also cannot be analyzed in depth with the presented hybrid model. The model shows that traveling abroad and the use of services grow as earning grow, but regarding daily consumption, it is not possible to differentiate amount and quality.”
Read the full study here.