The question of sustainability
April 19, 2017
For homebuyers, the question of how to buy a home—the mortgage, the down payment, the whole process—is second only to where to buy it. And today, many homebuyers are looking at location from a new angle: sustainability.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of press about urbanites being greener than people in the suburbs and the country. But new analyses show just the opposite. While city dwellers drive less and use less energy at home, their carbon footprint ends up bigger because they consume more energy outside the home, and because they’re more affluent, using more resources overall.
Urban density has its advantages
City living has many upsides. Making like a sardine on the subway and living in a hobbit-size apartment might not seem to be among them. But from an environmental perspective, these challenges of urban density are a plus.
If you buy a home in a suburban or rural area, you may have no choice but to rely on your car, and thus use more energy for transportation. A lot more. (Unless you buy your home in one of the new “urban ’burbs”.) Using public transportation is one of the biggest ways to reduce your carbon footprint, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).
Switching to public transportation, says APTA, can reduce your daily carbon emissions by 20 pounds, or more than 4,800 pounds annually. That’s more than you can save by weatherizing your home and using energy efficient lightbulbs and appliances combined. A typical household in Boston’s urban core, for example, generates around 6,700 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide annually than its suburban counterpart, thanks to driving habits alone.
And then there’s electricity and home heating. Suburbanites usually live in bigger, more energy-hogging homes. “That’s the point of living there,” you may be thinking (the big part, not the hog part). Fair enough. But apartments aren't only smaller; they’re surrounded by other apartments, which makes them even easier to heat. “On average, electricity use is 88 percent higher in single-family detached homes than in apartment buildings with five or more units,” reports the Boston Globe.
On a citywide scale, these advantages of density can look impressive. “Per capita emissions in New York, Toronto, and Barcelona are only a third of their national average, and the emissions of Tokyo, London, and Seoul come in at about half of their countries’ level,” reported New Scientist in 2009.
Urban affluence leaves a big footprint
However—big however—the carbon savings realized by urban density are now known to be negated by two things: affluence and “parallel consumption.”
Early studies “ignored the fact that cities are usually the wealthiest places,” according to Environmental Research Web. “Wealth brings greater consumption and extra greenhouse-gas emissions.” A 2013 study showed that in fact, city dwellers were worse in their greenhouse–gas emissions than country dwellers.
People who have more money tend to spend more on energy-intensive goods like clothes and technology. As one researcher pointed out, with the service sector now dominant in many places, cities are basically outsourcing their industrial production. It's just plain inaccurate to blame a city in China for the emissions produced by manufacturing a pair of shoes sold to a consumer in Chicago. The consumption is driving the emissions.
Parallel consumption is another previously hidden factor. Yes, city dwellers typically use less energy at home. But that’s only because, more than their non-urban counterparts, they are extending their energy consumption outside the home, for example to restaurants and Laundromats.
In sum: your carbon footprint is everywhere
The public transportation and limited square footage that are part and parcel of urban locations are good for the environment, for sure. But buying in the city doesn't automatically get you a green pass. Wherever we make our home, almost everything we do or buy or eat can leave a carbon footprint or otherwise disrupt the environment.
If you want to get a better sense of your impact on the planet, including the impact inherent in your location, spend some time with a carbon calculator. Mother Nature Network has a round-up of the best on the web, including several designed just for kids. (“Bobbie Bigfoot Calculator,” anyone?)
Tip for urban homebuyers: If your target city requires energy consumption reporting, you can see how that building you have your eye on stacks up. The idea is to look at building energy the way you would look at nutrition information on a food package or fuel efficiency for a car. New York City has been requiring large apartment buildings to report their energy consumption since 2012. Other cities tracking this info, according to sustainablebusiness.com, include Austin, Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
Are you weighing city vs. suburb?
Check out the related articles below to explore the new "urban 'burbs," less-dense cities, and country living.
This article was originally published in 2014. Periodically we feature evergreen content like this from our archives.