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Pick one or the other

Two days ago I posted a neat interactive map of carbon footprints across America. It was taken from an Atlantic Cities article. But in the same post, I questioned the (Atlantic Cities) article’s headline and main assertion that increasing population density won’t help to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

This didn’t make sense to me.

Well it turns out that the supporting research data was slightly misinterpreted. According to the Per Square Mile blog, the UC Berkeley study associated with the interactive map reveals a more nuanced relationship between population density and carbon emissions. It turns out that people who live in the middle of nowhere (rural residents) actually have fairly low carbon footprints. Even though they’re reliant on cars, they tend to drive and consume relatively little.

And so initially, as population densities increase, so do carbon footprints. That is until it reaches about 3,000 people per square mile. At that point, carbon emissions start to drop off dramatically—roughly 35% on average from suburb to city.

Below is a graph I found in the comment section of the original Atlantic Cities article that demonstrates this phenomenon. Population density is on the x-axis and carbon emissions are on the y-axis.

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So here’s the big takeaway. If you’re looking to optimize around your carbon footprint, you need to pick a side: Either be urban or be rural. But don’t be somewhere in the middle. Don’t be suburban.

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