Rich Americans’ Homes Have 25% Larger Carbon Footprints Than Low-Income Households

The researchers calculated the carbon emissions of 93 million U.S. homes during the year 2015 and analyzed the results by income and location

A large estate in a Vermont hillside photographed in fall foliage
Large homes in Maine, Wisconsin and Vermont, like this one, were found to have the largest carbon footprints due to use of heat in cold winters. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

The homes of rich Americans are responsible for nearly 25 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than those of poorer people, according to a new study. Some of the richest suburbs in the United States have carbon footprints 15-times the size of less affluent neighboring districts, reports Isabelle Chapman for CNN.

Planet-warming emissions from households account for one-fifth of the total that the U.S. pumps into the atmosphere annually, reports Valerie Volcovici for Reuters. The greenhouse gases from American homes each year exceed the total emitted by the country of Germany, according to Mongabay.

The study, published this week in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calculated the emissions associated with 93 million housing units across the U.S. in 2015 and analyzed them according to their location and income.

The researchers calculated the energy consumption of individual homes using 2015 tax records and calculated the home’s emissions by incorporating a range of factors, including the building’s age, size and type as well as the local climate and the power grid supplying the home’s electricity.

Based on federal definitions of income level, the study found that the average high-income household spews some 6,482 pounds of greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere annually, while the average home of lower income individuals accounted for 5,225 pounds per year, reports Seth Borenstein for the Associated Press. One of the biggest factors linking high greenhouse gas emissions to the lifestyles of the rich was their tendency to own larger homes.

"This is like a tale of two cities in carbon form," Benjamin Goldstein, an environmental scientist at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the study, tells CNN. "Income and greenhouse gases rise together."

Though wealthier Americans are responsible for the greatest share of planet-warming emissions, they are less likely to suffer the consequences.

“The poor are more exposed to the dangers of the climate crisis, like heat waves, more likely to have chronic medical problems that make them more at risk to be hospitalized or die once exposed to heat, and often lack the resources to protect themselves or access health care,” Renee Salas, an emergency room physician and climate health researcher at Harvard University who wasn’t part of the study, tells the AP.

The analysis found the most energy intensive homes per square foot were found in Maine, Vermont and Wisconsin where cold winters require significant heating, reports Oliver Milman for the Guardian. The least energy intensive locations per square foot were in three balmier states: Florida, Arizona and California.

“Although houses are becoming more energy efficient, U.S. household energy use and related greenhouse gas emissions are not shrinking, and this lack of progress undermines the substantial emissions reductions needed to mitigate climate change,” Goldstein says in a statement.

While reducing the emissions associated with electricity production is essential to mitigate climate change, the authors argue that it is unlikely to do enough on its own to meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of slashing residential emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The authors say more structural changes including retrofitting dwellings to make them more energy efficient and moving Americans toward denser neighborhoods made up of smaller homes.

Speaking with the AP, Goldstein noted the inability of most residents to choose how their electricity is produced or how their cities are constructed: “I don’t think we can solve this based on personal choices. We need large scale structural transitions of our energy infrastructure.”

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