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Los Angeles: Environmentally Conscious or Super Polluter?

October 15, 2008 06:59 AM
by Isabel Cowles
LA has been labeled the nation’s second smallest and second largest carbon-producing city, demonstrating that there is still no definitive way to measure carbon production.

Los Angeles Highlights Paradox in Carbon Measuring

Los Angeles has been named the nation's second smallest and second largest carbon-producing city.

Two reports produced within the last six months illustrate a paradox in carbon recording and highlight how different methods of carbon calculation can encourage the displacement of carbon emissions rather than curtail them.

The Brookings Institution and a team of researchers sponsored by NASA have both accurately stated that Los Angeles simultaneously represents the best—and worst—of carbon emissions. Although the findings are completely at odds, each study is substantiated by the carbon-tracking methods employed. 

According to the report by the Brookings Institution, based on their research of highway traffic and household energy consumption, Los Angeles has the second smallest carbon footprint of any urban area in the United States.

Brookings determined that Los Angeles residents emit less measurable carbon than residents of other cities, partly because the agreeable climate on the west coast lessens the demand for air conditioning and heating, according to the Economist. Los Angeles also relies on more energy sources that are cleaner than those used by other cities—namely coal, which is the primary energy source in the Midwest. Brookings also notes that many Los Angeles residents live together, thereby reducing emissions calculated for each household.

A study by NASA-sponsored climate researchers paints a different picture of the City of Angels. The purpose of the “Vulcan Project,” started in April 2008, was to measure the source of carbon dioxide instead of tracking its final destination and accumulation in the atmosphere.

According to the NASA Web site, Kevin Gurney, lead researcher of the Vulcan Project, used data available from the Environmental Protection Agency that specified “how much carbon monoxide industries, power plants, or urban areas generate; what kinds of devices produced it, and the kind and amount of fuel they used.” Using the data, Gurney calculated how much C02 was emitted using combustion models.

When examining the carbon footprint generated in production, Gurney concluded that Los Angeles was second only to Harris County, Texas in its negative atmospheric impact.

Background: Measuring carbon production vs. carbon consumption

The distinction between these classifications highlights an ongoing debate over tracking carbon emissions internationally. Forbes explains, “this variance in measurement means attempts to trim carbon like the Kyoto Protocol may not be reducing global carbon emissions but merely displacing a portion of them to developing nations.”

Furthermore, the Protocol insists that members lower domestically produced carbon emissions on a specified schedule. “These reductions are measured by the amount of emissions produced domestically but not emissions embodied in carbon-intensive imported goods like aluminum and steel,” according to Forbes.

As a result, developed countries like Italy, Germany and France have low carbon emissions where production is concerned, but high levels when consumption is measured.

Michael Wara, assistant professor of Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford Law School, explained the paradox of employing multiple forms of carbon-tracking. "If you look at how much carbon Europe produces, they look good. If you look at how much they consume, Europe looks bad."

Reference: Exporting CO2 emissions; the Kyoto Protocol


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