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Your wallet ? not your address ? determines your CO2 emissions, study finds

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 29 Jun 2011 03:56 PM
Author: Soumya Karlamangla
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By Soumya Karlamangla

Here’s another reason that the love of money is the root of all evil: a new study from Aalto University in Finland shows that spending is not just bad for your pocketbook, but for the environment too.
In a paper released earlier this year, researchers  discovered a strong correlation between the consumption of goods and carbon footprint, noting that as income increases, so do greenhouse gas emissions.

For years, it has been widely accepted that living in a city – with its public transportation systems and closely-spaced housing -  is more environmentally-friendly than living in the countryside.

But when the scientists compared the greenhouse gas emissions of people in Finland living in concentrated metropolitan centres and those in less dense surrounding suburbs, they found that, contrary to popular belief, there’s little difference.

In fact, there’s nearly no correlation between where someone lives and their CO2 emissions, according to Jukka Heinonen, the lead author of the study.

What matters is how often they open their wallets.

“The main contributor is not so much about the type of housing or the place that he or she lives,” Heinonen said. “The consumption of goods and services cause carbon emissions.”

“The correlation between income and emissions is quite high and it’s shown that when consumption increases, emissions increase,” Heinonen said.

So if emissions rise with income, what does that mean for developing countries?

Most poorer countries have a relatively small carbon footprint, Heinonen noted. The World Resources Institute has shown that 75 percent of emissions causing climate change have over the years come from developed countries. The 50 least developed countries, by comparison, have produced only 1 percent of these emissions.

The problem is that as the incomes of poorer countries grow, so will their greenhouse gas emissions, the study suggests.

Previous studies have come to a different conclusion. Most have shown that people in cities have a smaller carbon footprint than those in the suburbs. Because countries typically urbanize as their incomes increase, a limiting effect on carbon emission increases might be expected.

But these earlier analyses, Heinonen explained, calculated emissions from a certain geographical area and then divided that by the number of people living there. In the new study, emissions from the production of goods were allocated to their consumers, instead of being counted where they were created – often outside the cities where they are used.

 “If you buy electronics, cars, home appliances, they are mostly produced abroad,” he said. “If you allocate (the emissions)  to the people that are living there, it’s a bit biased picture that you get, because the people that are then made responsible for the emissions are not the ones that consume the products.”

The report drew data from cities and towns throughout Finland, including Helsinki and Tampere, but Heinonen said future  research may be conducted elsewhere.

“We are quite interested in bringing the perspective to other countries,” he said. But “at least in Western countries, quite similar developed countries … the same results are probable.”

Soumya Karlamangla is an intern with AlertNet Climate.

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