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Wealthier in U.S. have larger carbon footprints, energy use survey shows

Despite the bad rap they have, researchers say cities are more efficient than suburbs in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Pictured, traffic heads into downtown Chicago on Lake Shore Drive in 2007. File Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/e674a2e8ec46d3a5406d76651a78e63a/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Despite the bad rap they have, researchers say cities are more efficient than suburbs in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Pictured, traffic heads into downtown Chicago on Lake Shore Drive in 2007. File Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI | License Photo

July 20 (UPI) -- Wealthy homeowners contribute more to global warming than Americans in lower-income neighborhoods, according to a new survey of household energy use.

The first of its kind study -- published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- looked at energy use by 93 million American homes, revealing the ways energy use drives greenhouse gas emissions in different neighborhoods and across varying parts of the country.

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"One of the motivations for our study was to try to get a handle on the specifics and drivers of household energy use, which is about 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States," senior study author Joshua Newell told UPI.

"The more digging we did, the more we realized no one had used big data and big data analysis to understand the drivers and variables involved household energy use," said Newell, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.

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Newell and his research partners used a database of standardized tax assessor records to estimate building-level energy use and decipher the influence of climate, the electrical grid, household income and building attributes on a building's "greenhouse gas intensity," calculated as emissions per square meter of residential floor space.

Their statistical analysis showed a that greenhouse gas intensity is lowest in the West and highest in central areas of the United States.

The research also showed that even in places with relatively green and efficient electrical grids, affluence can have a sizable influence on greenhouse gas intensity.

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"As we got deeper into our research, and as we did more detailed analysis of energy use in Los Angeles and Boston, the effects of affluence on greenhouse gas emissions began to stand out," Newell said. "You have such disparity, for example, between South Central L.A. and Beverley Hills, where you can really see the role of affluence on the size of carbon footprints."

According to Newell, it's the lack of density and the size of the houses in affluent neighborhoods that are driving disparities in greenhouse gas intensity.

Newell and his colleagues hope their findings will guide policy makers as they work to curb greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change.

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The new analysis showed that if the U.S. electrical grid is decarbonized, with fossil fuels entirely eliminated, the residential housing sector can reduce greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent by 2025, one of the targets set by the Paris Agreement.

The data showed, however, that a lot more must happen for the housing sector to meet the 80 percent emissions reduction target for 2050, researchers said.

"There is also a lot that can be done in terms of home energy retrofits and improvements to insulation and more efficient windows, which can be incentivized by policy makers and local governments," Newell said.

"One thing is that we need to encourage density wherever we can," Newell said. "Cities have gotten a bad rap during the COVID pandemic, but they are really highly efficient in terms of energy use and greenhouse gas intensity."

By highlighting the influence of affluence on greenhouse gas emissions, Newell said the research asks the question: "What responsibility do wealthier households have for combating climate change, and for paying some of the necessary energy efficiency reforms and retrofits?"

The work of Newell and his research partners at Michigan, Dimitrios Gounaridis and lead study author Benjamin Goldstein, suggests technology improvements, alone, won't be sufficient to stave off catastrophic climate change.

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To stop climate change, serious lifestyle changes are likely necessary.

"I'm of the firm belief that green tech and technology can get us part of the way, but I think we all need to look in the mirror and think about our own consumption patterns," Newell said.

"That's why part of our study looked at a size of homes and emphasized the important of density, to get people to ask the question: do we really need this big of a home?"

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