City vs. Country City Dwellers May Not Be Greener than their Rural and Suburban Counterparts After All

city vs. country. credit: Barnyz, FlickrCCCity dwellers have long been thought to have smaller carbon footprints than rural residents. After all, they use cars less, live in (mostly) smaller spaces and are usually lawn-free. But researchers at Aalto University in Finland looked closer and discovered that people’s carbon emissions in a city are practically the same as in rural areas.

By using a new hybrid lifecycle analysis approach, researchers Jukka Heinonen and Seppo Junnila quantified carbon emissions by looking at production, monetary transactions and consumption statistics. Unlike previous studies, the analysis included the impact of the things people buy and use. For example, the carbon emissions from a flat-screen TV would be added to the consumer’s footprint—not to the plant that produced it.

A report published in 2009 by the International Institute for Environment and Development International Institute for Environment and Development tracked only the emissions emitted directly by a city, rather than those generated by the production of goods consumed by its residents. According to the report, New York City emitted more than 58.3 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2005, around 7.1 tons per person. Meanwhile, U.S. per capita levels were more than triple that—at 23.9 tons in 2004, putting NYC residents well below the country’s average.

But Heinonen and Junnila’s study found that carbon consumption is directly linked to income and consumption habits, not where you live. “It is evident from the data that income levels are higher in larger and more dense urban areas, and together with better availability of goods and services, those areas have higher emissions,” Heinonen explained. “If someone moves away from a large city, their consumption habits don’t necessarily change.”