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Study: Suburbs account for half of all greenhouse gas emissions

Published: Monday, April 21, 2014 10:45 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, April 21, 2014 11:20 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Rob Winner – rwinner@shawmedia.com)
An on-board diagnostic connector is all that is used to check a vehicle's emissions Friday at the Illinois Air Team facility in Joliet.

JOLIET – No city is an island to itself.

They’re tied to the suburbs and should work with them to find ways to reduce greenhouse gases, researchers say. 

According to a study from the University of California, Berkeley, suburbs account for half of all household greenhouse gas emissions, despite making up less than half of the U.S. population. The average carbon footprint of households living in the center of large, dense urban areas is about 50 percent below average, while households in suburbs are up to twice the average. 

While there are no across-the-board solutions, researchers, city officials and local environmental groups are finding ways to make the suburbs greener.

Dan Kammen, a professor of energy at UC Berkeley who led the study, said a regional public transportation plan for the Chicago area could be a cost-effective solution to reduce greenhouse gases. 

“Both on the transportation and local energy side, there is a pretty big opportunity to save on energy and carbon footprint,” he said. 

It’s more than just transportation, he said. Other causes for more greenhouse gas in the suburbs include larger homes and energy costs associated with delivering goods and services.

Many towns, including Plainfield and Joliet, have recycling programs, construct “green” buildings and create bike paths, all with the goal of being environmentally friendly.

For John Proulx, Plainfield village staff planner, it’s not surprising that suburbs can be responsible for more greenhouse gases than the city. 

“I think it’s one of the unfortunate drawbacks of this suburban development pattern,” he said. “I enjoy living in it but it’s not a sustainable land pattern for every resident in the country of the world if we tried to live in this manner.”

Jesse Elam, a planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, said it’s generally accepted in urban planning that suburban environments contribute more greenhouse gases than cities.

Local governments can purchase low-emission engines for their vehicle fleets to promote air quality, he said. Planning to locate retail centers closer to where people lives also can help.

“There is a ton of evidence out there that suggests a more compact growth pattern tends to have lower greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

City officials in Joliet are trying to get people to use public transportation such as the bus and train system, said James Haller, the city’s community and economic development director. He said the city also converted traffic signals to light-emitting diodes that use less electricity and last longer. 

They also give people recycle toters, which has resulted in a 40 percent increase in recycling citywide in the past two years, he said.

“I know some of my neighbors didn’t recycle, and when they got the toters they are now recycling everything,” he said.

Will County has two plans – a solid waste management plan and energy plan – to ensure its landfill and energy consumption is environmentally sound. 

Ellen Rendulich, director of Lockport-based Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, said she was unsure if suburbs contribute more greenhouse gases than urban areas. While high density areas such as cities might not be taking up as much land they are still causing pollution, she said. 

CARE tries to raise awareness of environmental issues with citizens and elected officials, Rendulich said. The organization has been particularly concerned about the impact from the coal and chemical industries.

Rendulich said she recommends residents in suburbs should reduce waste, reuse products and recycle. 

“We’ve been a disposable society and it’s not strictly limited to Will County, it’s everywhere,” she said. 

OUTBOX

On the Web

University of California, Berkeley researchers put together an interactive “carbon footprint map” available at coolclimate.berkeley.edu/maps.

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