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Pollution has no respect for party lines. In the US, Republican and Democratic districts may differ in many ways but when comes to the carbon emissions heating our planet the differences are much smaller than you might expect. This is one of the most surprising and important findings in a remarkable new working paper from CGD visiting senior associate Kevin Ummel. I’m so excited about this paper I took a short break from my new job at the World Resources Institute to discuss with Kevin the far-reaching implications of his work for the design and politics of US carbon pollution fees.  

Kevin’s paper, Who Pollutes? A Household-Level Database of America’s Greenhouse Gas Footprint, is a slender 23 pages that sits on the brawny shoulders of a fresh approach to available data and an muscular number crunching exercise to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions of households all across America.

Kevin tells me that he set out to study the consumption habits of American households based on the recognition that “every kilogram of human-caused emissions can be traced to a consumptive choice on the part of an individual, a household, or in some cases, a government.”

Kevin used data from two massive surveys (the Consumer Expenditure Survey and the American Community Survey) to determine what American households buy with their money. He then combined this survey data with data from the environmental sciences to “translate how people spend their money into an estimate of how much [carbon] pollution they are producing.”

One surprise: the high degree of what Kevin calls “pollution inequality”—the top 10 percent of US polluters are responsible for 25 percent of the country’s carbon footprint, while the least-polluting 40 percent of Americans account for just 20 percent.

Who pollutes most? Low-density, affluent suburbs, where the lifestyle includes big homes, big cars, long commutes and plenty of international air travel. Many of these people also recycle and opt for local produce to reduce their carbon footprint! (Sound like anybody you know?)

High-density cities have the lowest household carbon footprint—especially the poorer neighborhoods that tend to vote for Democrats. More surprisingly, less affluent rural communities that tend to vote Republican also have small carbon footprints.

The new data show that these geographical distinctions are much starker than the differences between the carbon footprints of Republican and Democratic districts, which tend to be “very, very small,” Kevin says. 

All this is very good news for the growing number of policy experts and ordinary Americans who see a revenue-carbon pollution fee as the best way to reduce emissions and spark a prosperity-enhancing, poverty-reducing, green technology revolution.

“If the US were to put a carbon tax in place, it’s not the case right off the bat that the members of one party would be disadvantaged relative to the other,” Kevin says.

“The difference in political rhetoric is far greater than the difference in environmental reality,” he adds. “The rhetoric should be: Why are we taxing things we want more of, like income, instead of things we want less of, like pollution?”

It’s the politics, of course. But Kevin doesn’t put all the blame on politicians. Research, he says, can do much more to give policy makers and politicians the tools they need to design a carbon-fee-and-rebate approach that will appeal to voters across the political spectrum.

I heartily agree! I urge you to skim Kevin’s full paper to learn more about his analytical approach and the surprising findings about who pollutes (skip to the Discussion if you are more policy wonk than data nerd). Then, to discover how this could unfold in the political world, read my newly published CGD essay: The Sudden Rise of Carbon Taxes, 2010-2030, a future history.