We usually think about our carbon footprint in terms of individual choices: How often do we fly? Do we eat meat? Have we purchased an electric car?
But household emissions also often depend on factors that we have limited control over, such as the density of our neighborhoods, whether public transportation is available near us or whether electricity in our region comes from coal-burning plants or emissions-free solar plants.
“Consumption is not the individual act we all think it is,” Siobhan Foley, head of sustainable consumption at C40, a network of the world’s biggest cities committed to addressing climate change, told The New York Times. “We treat it like a personal choice, but it’s shaped by all these other factors.”
My colleagues recently published a set of maps that illustrate this idea in stark relief. The maps, based on research from U.C. Berkeley, estimate the emissions of an average household in a neighborhood based on electricity use, car ownership, income levels, consumption patterns and more.
A clear pattern emerges: Across the U.S., households in denser neighborhoods close to city centers tend to be responsible for fewer planet-warming greenhouse gases, on average, than households in the rest of the country. Residents in these areas typically drive less because jobs and stores are nearby and they can more easily walk, bike or take public transit. And they’re more likely to live in smaller homes or apartments that require less energy to heat and cool.
Moving further from city centers, average emissions per household typically increase as homes get bigger and residents tend to drive longer distances. Though what we eat and buy and how often we travel are important factors in determining our carbon footprint, driving and housing are frequently the largest contributors.
“What this shows so clearly is these large-scale patterns,” said Nadja Popovich, a data and graphics reporter on the Climate desk at The Times. In “city after city, place after place, the same thing repeats, with lower-emissions cores and higher-emissions suburbs and exurbs.”
Take California’s big cities. The average emissions of a household in central San Francisco are one-third to one-half as much as those in, for example, Los Altos, Mill Valley or Atherton. Similarly, the average emissions of a household in downtown Los Angeles are one-third to one-half as much as those in Calabasas, Rancho Palos Verdes or Malibu.
Households in these suburbs tend to be higher-income, which increases their climate footprint further because people in them can buy more stuff — appliances, cars, furnishings, electronic gadgets — and travel more, all of which comes with related emissions.
But there are also major structural factors: For decades in the United States, a majority of new homes have been built in the suburbs and, increasingly, the exurbs, where climate footprints are larger. As a result, for many people today, it is often easier and cheaper to find a home in a high-emissions community than in a lower-emissions one.
The data suggests that building denser housing in walkable areas with good access to transit is crucial if U.S. cities want to lower their climate footprints. But reducing the climate impact of cities doesn’t mean filling every city and town with huge skyscrapers, experts said.
For example, changes to the layout of suburban communities, such as locating stores, restaurants and community centers closer to homes, can reduce automobile travel and bring down a community’s emissions.
“We really didn’t want it to be something where you’re blamed for your personal footprint,” Nadja told me about the project. “It’s really about these patterns you see across place and space, because decades and decades of policies have shaped our cities to look the way we do.”
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Liz Sampson, who lives in Oak View. Liz recommends a trip to Ojai, especially during the Ojai Music Festival, scheduled this year for June:
“With artists and attendees from around the globe, the avant-garde Ojai Music Festival is one of the top venues of new and traditional classical music. Last year we sat next to a person who had been music director for the Metropolitan Opera, so people do come from all over.
The town of Ojai is also rather extraordinary, with its Meditation Mount and world-renowned painters and artists. All the arts are appreciated and Ojai artists with major works offer monthly open houses to see their studios. It’s rural, so no need to dress up. Innovative jewelry and clothing abound here — many spas and, of course, breathtaking views. No chain stores allowed, so you won’t see the same old shops and restaurants that blanket the rest of the country.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
We’re looking for recommendations for where to see the best art in California. What galleries have you visited over and over? Which exhibits do you insist on taking all out-of-town visitors?
Email us at CAToday@nytimes.com with your suggestions, and a few lines on why it’s your pick.
And before you go, some good news
With Valentine’s Day coming up, Times editors and reporters shared their favorite romantic restaurants. Jodi Kantor, an investigative reporter, said she fell in love with her husband 25 years ago over a menu:
“He took me to Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, Calif. The dessert menus arrived. A worn soundtrack started playing in my head: enough, no, don’t, bad.
‘I think we should get three,’ he said.”
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Briana Scalia and Maia Coleman contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.
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