We’re Suckers For Lists

All you need to know: We’re number 6! That and — huh? — Honolulu is number 1? And hold on there, how could LA, ranked number 2, be better than us?

The Brookings Institution just released a ranking of per capita carbon footprint for 100 major U.S. cities. Sure, this list will help raise awareness, but I’m a bit surprised to see Brookings publishing something so gimmicky and easily misinterpreted.

Case in point: Is there anything particularly innovative going on in Honolulu — in terms of policy or the built environment or transportation — that is responsible for their number one status? Honlolulu ranks 2nd for highway transportation emissions and 15th for residential energy emissions. Given Honolulu’s climate, the residential ranking seems reasonable. But what is up with transportation in Honolulu?

There is no explanation offered in the full report, but it cites this academic paper. And therein, a paragraph describing “cautions” in interpreting the data notes that Honolulu has the lowest “truck share” of all the cities. But we’re left to wonder: Why does Honolulu have such low truck VMTs? Does the Brookings Institution recommend that cities ban trucks to improve their carbon footprint ranking?

According to one of the authors, “Seattle is clearly ahead of a lot of other communities on this.” But the main reason we’re ahead is because we happen to have a very large river system nearby, and also because the impact the hydro-power dams have on salmon runs is not part of the equation. For transportation Seattle ranks 27th — respectable, but hardly a national leader.

Overall, it seems to me that the effect of climate makes this list all but useless for helping to identify which cities are on the right track. Cities with seasonal temperature extremes are penalized because they require more heating and air conditioning. Indeed, most of the cities in the top ten have relatively temperate climates. New York City, ranked number 4, apparently has high enough density and transit ridership to overcome the hit it takes from climate. Boise at number 5 makes no sense at all to me.

Meanwhile many of the cities in the bottom ten are in the Midwest, a region known for hot summers and cold winters. It may well be that these cities have high VMTs as well as high residential energy use. Or perhaps they’re doing great with building efficiency, but extra lousy with transportation. You’d have to dig deeper than the headline-grabbing list to figure that out. And who, besides the rare wonk such as yours truly, is going to do that?

Feel like a sucker?

8 Responses to “We’re Suckers For Lists”

  1. Mike O'Neill

    Not that Knute Berger is on our side of the density, global warming, etc., but he has a good piece on Crosscut. Missing from the analysis: local roads (only federal highways are included), sea- and air-based transport (on which Honolulu is reliant), gov’t buildings (like military bases), etc.


  2. Dan Staley

    Further to Mike’s point, David Appell points out this report is questionable because:

    * The calculations did not account for the fact that half the city’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Instead, [they] 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.

    Why might something like that happen?

    As the Bush administration fended off pressure in recent years to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty limiting greenhouse gases, more than 800 U.S mayors signed a “Climate Protection Agreement” to cut their cities’ emissions to 7% below 1990 levels, the Kyoto target.

    If your mayor signs up for a goal, you can be sure his bureaucrats will try pretty hard to meet it — on way or the other. Soon we are going to be in a position where all of our cities are claiming significant cuts in their carbon emissions, but overall emissions for the United States will continue to grow.


    Me? I don’t see how we’re going to reduce emissions in this current climate, where few want to make the teeny-tiniest sacrifice for the smallest thing. I’m talking perhaps 1/2 – 2/3 of our population. Sure, we can start pricing, but we need regulations too. And quick. Where’s the leadership laying the groundwork? No-frackin’-where.

  3. Dan Staley

    Ah. Had I read Mike’s link prior to yap-yap-yapping, I’d have seen that Knute sez what I quoted above.

  4. JoshMahar

    “But we’re left to wonder: Why does Honolulu have such low truck VMTs?” Because the closest state is like 3000 miles across the ocean.

    Anyway, I would like to play the devil’s advocate here, because its always fun. Now, you say that this list isn’t useful for seeing “whose on the right track” but thats not the point. The point is to show which cities are producing the biggest carbon footprint. Now, in this sense I think it is valid to note that us West Coasters are lucky in that we have lots and lots of hydro power, hence the reason why car-dependent LA made it to number 2. Also, its important to see that places with extreme climates are going to have to work a lot harder to limit emissions than temperate areas, thats just the nature of the game.

    That being said, its true, what Dan, Mike, and Knute said. With this report only taking 50% of emissions into account the ranking system seems pretty pointless.

  5. Dan Staley

    Matt Kahn (Green Cities) claims he and Glaeser will have a working paper out that expands on this paper , albeit with more detailed math than the Brookings.

    The second link is recommended reading.

  6. dan bertolet

    Josh: I don’t believe that the analysis is pointless. Rather, it’s the way that it’s been presented as a dumbed down horse race that’s lame.

    Even though they didn’t count all sources, it’s still a good thing to have the transportation and residential energy emissions data. And you have to look at those two pieces individually to make any sense of it.

    If the point of the study is only to show which cities have the biggest footprint, I don’t think it’s making much of a contribution. We need to look at the variations BETWEEN cities and understand what’s causing them.

    Regarding climate, I think that regulation will likely have to take into account climate variation. If it doesn’t, we’ll essentially be coercing people to move to temperate regions. Then again, who knows, maybe that’s a strategy that will become necessary…

  7. Sabina Pade

    *Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends. – 1979*

    I agree with Lewis Mumford.

    *We’re Suckers for Lists*

    I agree with Dan Bertolet, too.

    Reducing the pollution of our air, water and soil does on a local scale meaningfully improve our quality of life. And increasing the efficiency of our energy use makes good economic sense. I doubt however that diminishing the carbon footprint of American cities, by reducing their per capita consumption of fossil fuels, will significantly improve their environmental sustainability or slow global warming. America, glutton albeit, is not the only big player anymore.

    Asia decreasingly buys into the notion that one’s access to the spoils of material wealth should follow in inverse proportion to one’s skin melanin content. Asia holds a lot of people, whose economic power is growing rapidly, and who have immediate access to large reserves of fossil fuels. It would be wishful thinking on America’s part to imagine Asia isn’t going to exploit these reserves.

    If humankind is to get a grip on CO2, we’ll need to practice carbon sequestration on a huge scale.

    Of course prevention is in most cases preferable to cure. Just that, when it comes to CO2 emissions, I fear Team Density would expose itself to ridicule by claiming that halting sprawl in North America will meaningfully slow global warming. Density’s principal advantage, as I see it, is to help people internalize the concept that we’ve all to share this same planet.

  8. betfair loophole

    What a breath of fresh air to bring a little sunshine after a intense day. Excellent prose that really gets the point covered. Cant thank you enough for sharing.

Leave a Reply