I ran across one statistic the other day that said that Washington, D.C. was the lowest carbon emitting state or district in the nation. Bold claim?
As of 2013 (the most recent full data set), the average resident of the District of Columbia emitted 5.12 tons of CO2 . At less than a third of the national average (17.46 tons), this is the lowest carbon dioxide emissions of any state or district in the Union.
So—how is that possible? There are plenty of jurisdictions (i.e. Vermont and California) that take environmental protection and climate change much more seriously.
The short answer is that dense urban areas have low carbon footprints. Because the District has no exurbia and no far-flung hinterland within its technical range, it’s almost cheating.
Considering that lack of size, the order of highest to lowest CO2 emitters is not all that surprising (and yes, it’s from Wikipedia, but I’ve checked the sources, so don’t worry, you nit-picks—you know who you are). And there, alllllllll the way at the bottom is little old Washington, D.C.
|Rank||Jurisdiction||Annual CO2 emissions||CO2 emissions|
|(in millions of metric tons)||per capita|
|(in metric tons)|
|51||District of Columbia||3||5.12|
The winner is Wyoming, which is cold and has a disparate population, which work to boost energy use and emissions. The runner up should also be no surprise—after all, Texas is massive territory and home to the self-proclaimed Energy Capital of the World, Houston.
The bottom five emitters per capita starts with Oregon, California and Vermont, no surprises there. New York, which in the energy sphere has been able to do things even California wishes it could do, takes the number two spot. And then there, all the way at the bottom is Washington, D.C.—a complete outlier at 37% fewer emissions than New York.
What We’re Measuring
CO2 emissions can be measured in pounds, tons, or metric tons, depending on which carbon footprint measurement website you use and country you’re in. I’ve chosen to break it all down to good old fashion American short tons of 2240 lbs each. That’s what the EPA uses, so it’s good enough for me.
According to a little division (EPA total CO2 emissions over Census Bureau data), the average American individual emits 17.46 tons of carbon dioxide per year. However, that doesn’t include the total GHG emissions measured by CO2 equivalent—tons of each GHG multiplied by their respective “greenhouse gas effect.”
Other anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHG)—methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, chlorofluorocarbons—are usually measured in terms of CO2 emissions equivalents, as well, and are sometimes rolled in, inflating the number. Once added in, that raises total average emissions per capita to 21.17 tons.
Which of these numbers you come up with (17.46 tons or 21.17 tons) also depends on who’s dishing the info. But in either case, the Washington, D.C. still has the lowest levels of any federal state or district in the country. The rankings Wikipedia shows are strictly in CO2 emissions, and considering the trickiness of measuring other GHGs, I think it’s better to stick to simple CO2 .
The biggest asterisk to the right of this measurement is indeed that Washington, D.C. is obviously a pure urban area. Because of public transportation, the propensity of urban citizens to walk, and the economies of scale for programs such as recycling and bike shares, urban areas produce lower CO2 emissions than rural areas.
The oddest part of that caveat is that cities—American cities anyway—are immediately surrounded by a massive ring of the highest polluting neighborhoods. This can probably be attributed to a combination of economic prosperity and driving into or otherwise economically engaging with the nearby city. It’s like this across the East Coast (and the nation):
So while Washington DC does have the lowest when put on the scale with other states—it simply doesn’t have the same carbon emission diversity as a full size state. Even Rhode Island makes the top of the list for reasons that I can imagine have more to do with size and density than policy.
The “Real” Rankings
When we look at how the Maryland, DC, Northern Virginia (MDV) area stacks up, it doesn’t really rank all that high. Unlike most urban areas other than New York, the metropolitan area is made up of three distinct state jurisdictions, which makes coordination complicated.
By another study’s measurement, the DC metropolitan area is #10 out of the 20 largest metropolitan areas for emissions per capita—ranked by residuals from the author’s econometric model. However, another study said that there may not be economies to scale of large cities. At just over 6 million, the MDV area is ranked the sixth largest metropolitan statistical area. Therefore (according to this study), when we control for size, we may not really be that far down the rankings.
The only study that does seem to measure CO2 levels by metropolitan statistical areas without any models also ranked DC nearer to the middle. The MDV area was #27 of 66 (from lowest to highest polluting) metro areas in their list. The abstract says that cities in California generally had the lowest emissions profiles and cities in Texas and Oklahoma were the worst performers.
So, once all those things are factored in, looks like DC is right in the middle. While it’s the lowest emitting of the 50 states and the district, it’s ranked in the top third of highest emitting metro statistical areas. Per usual, the truth is somewhere in between—we’re no poster child, but we’re not as bad as Texas.