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How does your city’s carbon footprint stack up?

A report by the Brookings Institution looks at the 100 largest metro areas in the US, using data on residential energy consumption and highway transportation.

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Despite the shortcomings in the report, some groups still believe it has value. “It illustrates the importance of local governments since emissions are local and so are solutions,” says Annie Strickler, a spokeswoman for ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives), an umbrella organization of local governments working on sustainability issues.

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ICLEI, which is based in Oakland, Calif., is in the process of a more comprehensive rating of cities on sustainability. It will try to cover all sources of carbon emissions.
Some of the Brookings ratings may appear puzzling. For example, the Los Angeles area is rated second behind Hawaii. The L.A. basin is famed for smog and traffic backups. However, Muro says, the research underscored the density of the area’s build-out. “While there are not a lot of tall buildings, it has places with a lot of small lots, master-planned large developments, and an increasing density,” he says. “And the state is increasingly pulling out of dirty energy sources and requiring lighter, low-carbon sourcing.”

Nine out of 10 of the lowest emitting metro areas are west of the Mississippi. New York, ranked No. 4, is the only city east of the river. Like L.A., New York has a smoggy atmosphere in the summer.

“New York beats a place like Lexington-Fayette because we have transit operations and greater energy efficiency with the density of the apartment buildings,” says Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, a national infrastructure plan. “We also have high energy rates which impacts efficiency in a different way,” says Ms. Todorovich, who is also a staff member at the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit trying to improve the quality of life in the New York metro area.

Largest emitters burn coal

The largest emitters have some common traits as well. Eight out of 10 are east of the Mississippi. Three of the metro areas are in Kentucky. Almost all the areas use coal for energy. “Many of them have not embraced mass transit until recently,” Muro says.

The highest-emitting metro area, Lexington, Ky., sees its environmental weakness as an economic strength. “Our proximity to the eastern coalfields has provided us with some of the nation’s lowest electrical costs,” says Cheryl Taylor, the city’s first commissioner of environmental quality in an e-mailed statement. “Our central location at the intersection of two major interstates attracts significant truck traffic.”

However, Ms. Taylor says, the city is increasing funding for alternative transportation and mass transit and is trying to halt sprawl with development downtown.

At least one mayor of a major emitting city, Mark Mallory of Cincinnati, was elected in part because of his concern about the environment. The Cincinnati City Council is now considering 80 recommendations to reduce carbon emissions. Mr. Mallory was unavailable for comment.

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