Blog: Dave LeggettLA the green city?

Dave Leggett | 2 June 2008

We've all seen those pictures of slow-moving traffic on monster multi-lane highways in Los Angeles, right? It's the city that grew up with the revolutionised lifestyles the automobile introduced in the last century. The end result was an extended urban sprawl, a city 'without a heart' and one that is almost totally reliant on highways and the car. That's the conventional wisdom anyway.

And it must have a diabolically bad carbon footprint you might think. Apparently not and I must admit I was staggered by this.

In a study just carried out by the Brookings Institution looking at US cities' carbon emissions, Los Angeles was found to generate less carbon per head than any other metropolis in continental America (it was only beaten by Honolulu in Hawaii).

How can that be? Two factors stand out. While Los Angeles scores badly on automobile traffic levels, it enjoys a relatively benign climate that reduces the need for heating buildings in winter and air-con in the summer. And secondly, the urban sprawl isn't as extensive as it looks - people are packed in quite tightly together in LA and that lowers energy usage per head, especially if household occupancy is high.

The thing that got me about this is that it kind of puts the motorcar's carbon contribution in context. Yes, it's an important contributor but so are other things and perhaps the industry as a whole needs to better communicate the message on its contribution in terms of a bigger picture that ordinary people can understand. That way, people can better make informed choices about vehicle choice and usage.

A sharpened up message to the public at large would also feed back into the politicians and regulators.

Grams of CO2 per vehicle km driven is fine for judging one car against another, but how does it compare to the CO2 your household generates via the main energy utilities in a typical year? Are you better off cutting down on journeys rather than downsizing? How many people are in the car on most journeys? Or should you just change your household boiler and add insulation? Or just not fly as much? Or offset?

In short, how does your car and its usage fit in to the bigger carbon picture?

I don't think many of us know the answer to that and there's no obvious place to look for simple guidance. If what's going on here in the UK is anything to go by, the politicians and civil servants are as confused as anyone.

Brookings Institution


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