Environmentally Friendly Development in a National Perspective

This editorial in the Los Angeles Times caught my eye. Ed Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard, argues that environmental regulations limiting development in California are harmful with regards to carbon output because the climate in California is so much better than in the rest of the country. Every house that isn’t built here is built somewhere else, and with a bigger carbon footprint.

Much of America struggles with cold winters and hot summers. Making such difficult climates comfortable for humans requires a lot of energy. By contrast, much of coastal California is pretty pleasant year-round, requiring far less energy. The natural implication is that to reduce carbon emissions, more Americans should live in temperate California.

This is an interesitng proposition, and one that makes a certain amount of sense on the face of it. I had some questions about the methodology of calculating the carbon output of a marginal home, so I took a look at the original study, which can be found here. I am in no way competent to critique the study itself, though I have questions about determining location of the marginal home (for Los Angeles, there isn’t much room for development on the coast, most development is inland with higher air conditioning needs and longer commutes) and the calculation of vehicle emissions (which seemed to ignore the output of idling in traffic and the marginal impact of the new household on traffic itself). There is also the question of the carbon cost of supplying water to the marginal household. This is a critique acknowledged on study co-author Matthew Kahn’s blog, though he is focused on the costs of pumping the water. My concern is more the cost of producing the water, especially given the recent discussion of desalination plants which are notorious energy hogs. Finally, I wonder at the effect on carbon output for the marginal household if the house is built on land formerly used for farming. How does the carbon cost of shipping food into cities that used to be supplied by local farms impact the urban carbon footprint?

That said, I feel fairly comfortable critiquing the conclusion that the lesser carbon footprint of a marginal home in California means we should relax environmental regulations designed to protect open space. Continued below the fold.

One of the conclusions of the study is that in addition to the climate, California is so much cleaner than other areas because we use cleaner energy, have cleaner appliances, and drive cleaner cars, and that this makes up for our longer commutes and electricity consumption.

Environmentalists have fought both to reduce emissions and to restrict new development.  In California, they have been successful in both fights.  The result of this combination of activities is that the places with the lowest emissions in the country are also the places that have made it most difficult to build.   We do not believe that California’s small per-household footprint is caused by land use regulation.  Californians’ heavy reliance on driving and not using public transit is well documented (Kahn 2006).  Instead, as documented in Table 2, California’s relative greenness reflects a temperate climate and relatively clean electric utilities.  California’s regulatory authorities have been the nation’s leader in enacting anti-pollution regulation.  The state enacted more stringent vehicle emissions and earlier than the rest of the nation and now is pursuing the ambitious AB32 legislation signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2006.  California’s current low per-capita electricity consumption levels are a relatively new trend.  In 1968, per-capita electricity consumption in California roughly equaled the nation’s per-capita electricity consumption. Today, California’s per-capita electricity consumption is forty percent lower than the nation’s per-capita consumption.  (Glaeser & Kahn 2008, 25)

I think that the logical implication of this is that a considerable effort should be made to shift more carbon-intensive regions toward greater energy efficiency and cleaner energy production. While the climate may not be replicable, a lot of the other factors are. A shift from fuel oil heating to either electric heating (powered by renewable sources) or natural gas would decrease the carbon output of the Northeast. The same is true for electricity production in the South. Based on the tables in the study and my back-of-the-envelope math, if power production in San Antonio were as clean as in Phoenix, the carbon output gap between them would be cut in half. I assume that the adoption of more efficient appliances would close that gap even further.

The second issue pertains to the type of development. In-filling the Los Angeles metro area by encouraging high-density development makes a great deal more environmental sense than repealing environmental regulations that prevent new development on the urban fringe. Glaeser himself made this argument in 2007 with regards to New York.

If the environmental footprint of the average suburban home is a size 15 hiking boot, the environmental footprint of a New York apartment is a stiletto-heeled Jimmy Choo.

I’m not sure that we should be looking at the ‘marginal household’ at all, but rather the carbon impact of replacing single-family tracts with mid- or high-density mixed-use development. Is a new single-family home in California more carbon efficient than a new apartment in Texas?

California’s interest in preserving its open space is fair and just, and its concerns about long-term water availability are also to be taken seriously (although the point is well made that most water used in the state is used for agriculture). Before reformulating California’s land use regulations in order to combat climate change, I would want to see a study that estimates the gap in regional carbon output if the rest of the country adopted car emission standards, energy efficiency standards, and clean energy production standards equivalent to those in California. If the carbon benefit still outweighs the environmental costs in loss of open space and water consumption, then sign me up. Otherwise, we should help and force the rest of the country to catch us up.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Do you have a link to that show?

  2. Sorry, posted to the wrong topic. I meant Daily Show post. Sorry again.

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