07/18/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

City Mouse vs. Country Mouse: Whose Carbon Footprint Is Bigger?


City life can be stressful at times and expensive always, but at least you can take solace in having a small carbon footprint. Tiny apartments to heat and cool, no need to drive a car -- of course you're not using as many resources as your suburban and rural brethren! Ah, but a new study suggests that urbanites shouldn't be quite so smug.

The study's press release sums it up: People living in cities produce more greenhouse-gas emissions than those living in the countryside.

Wait, what? Okay, the important caveat here is that this study estimated the carbon footprints of people living in Finland. Finland, home to just 5.5 million people but 2 million saunas (yes, one sauna for every 2.75 people) isn't necessarily the best comparison for the U.S. and its sprawling suburbs, but the conclusions of the report do raise important questions.

To boil the paper down, it's great that urbanites aren't driving to work or heating and cooling McMansions, but the urban lifestyle encourages what the authors label "parallel consumption." That is, taking advantage of services out and about in the city because of the possible limitations of typically small urban living spaces. So as compared to the more home-centric rural life, people in metropolitan areas are more likely to eat at restaurants, use laundry services or even own cottages to get away from the hectic city. In addition, urban residents tend to spend more superfluously on products like clothes and electronic gadgets.

But this all raises the question: Are the authors talking about urban living or are they really talking about income level? Such leisure spending requires money, and in the U.S., a much larger share of the population in cities is poor compared to the population in suburbs (although the suburban poverty rate is increasing and gentrification is pricing many out of cities). While the authors correctly contend that cities are places that tend to house wealth and thus those residents can spend more on services, different income levels in U.S. cities and towns than those found in Finland -- not to mention differences among U.S. cities and towns -- would likely alter the results. It's fair to consider whether U.S. city residents spend significantly more on services than suburban residents, for example. Sure enough, the authors are clear in pointing out that in different regions, "different factors may dominate the emissions, which could significantly change the outcome of a similar analysis."

Now that it's understood that carbon footprint results in Finland won't necessarily mirror those in the U.S., what does the bigger picture of this paper tell us? It's all about personal consumption, and there are lots of behaviors that factor into one's impact. While people living in cities are responsible for fewer greenhouse gas emissions through their transportation choices, they more than make up for it because nearly every other consumption choice they make -- for food, clothing, furnishings, eating out, recreation and numerous others -- the amount of money spent and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions are higher than for suburban or rural residents.

But don't you start getting smug, suburbanites and country people, because these results are simply a snapshot survey of 4,000 Finns entered into statistical models. Instead, this report provides a great list of individual consumer choices that anyone can rethink, in cities, suburbs and rural areas alike. No matter where you live there are environmental costs and benefits to the food you eat, the amount of energy you use, the type of transportation you choose and the overall amount of stuff that you consume.

There are of course a lot of assumptions made by the paper's authors to reach their counter-intuitive conclusions. Nevertheless it's a fascinating study that questions the commonly held assumption that urban dwellers are automatically more carbon-friendly. The authors say that they will release part two of their study soon, and this time will look more closely into diverse sets of lifestyles and socioeconomic variables. That's great news because reducing our use of natural resources and our impact on the environment isn't just a question of where we live, it's also a matter of how we live there.

Originally published at Ecocentric.