Greening the Sunbelt, plus Transit and Inequality

Wired‘s cover package on environmental heresies is a mixed bag. On the minus side, it’s not remotely surprising that dense living is greener, and it hardly counts as environmental heresy. What was unexpected, though it should have been obvious, is the news that air-conditioning is a heck of a lot better than heating when it comes to carbon impact.

When it’s 0 degrees outside, you’ve got to raise the indoor thermometer to 70 degrees. In 110-degree weather, you need to change the temperature by only 40 degrees to achieve the same comfort level. Since air-conditioning is inherently more efficient than heating (that is, it takes less energy to cool a given space by 1 degree than to heat it by the same amount), the difference has big implications for greenhouse gases.

In the Northeast, a typical house heated by fuel oil emits 13,000 pounds of CO2 annually. Cooling a similar dwelling in Phoenix produces only 900 pounds of CO2 a year. Air-conditioning wins on a national scale as well. Salving the summer swelter in the US produces 110 million metric tons of CO2 annually. Heating the country releases nearly eight times more carbon over the same period.

In other news, I believe Matt Power, who wrote both quick-takes, is a friend and landlord of a couple of friends of mine. A small world! Power also argues against buying a shiny new hybrid in favor of buying a used conventional car with good gas mileage.

Briefly, I was thinking about the air conditioning insight as it relates to the relative environmental impact of living in the Frostbelt versus the Sunbelt. And there are a lot of questions, including water sustainability, that you’d need to take into account. Los Angeles is very dense, yet it is extremely auto-dependent. If the city were as transit-friendly as New York, I would move there in a heartbeat. (This is a good reason for Angelenos to maintain the status quo.) That’s a tall order, but we can certainly close the gap in various. Assuming we also rationalized the way we distribute water resources, by pricing water intelligently and eliminating or sharply curtailing irrigation subsidies to agribusiness, the case for the Southland and the Valley of the Sun would become even stronger.

I’d also love to see adoption of something like the Kheel Plan in cities across the United States. Implement high congestion charges and use the revenue to fund free access to high-quality public transportation. That is step one. I would want to encourage private entrepreneurship, by, for example, inviting small-scale entrepreneurs to create jitney services in underserved neighborhoods, rather than banning and harassing such efforts. Also, we could use negative-price bidding to allow private firms to run certain bus rapid transit lines, etc.

There’s a small irony here. This public and private mix of transportation services will further enhance the role of cities as magnets for the ambitious, and in particular the ambitious poor. That is, good public policy will have the effect of exacerbating inequality in cities while improving the lives of the ambitious poor, by giving them better access to jobs and schools, etc. So a narrow focus on inequality doesn’t always serve us well.