A lot of the debate over energy and climate change has focused on changing how people live. But in a lot of ways, where someone lives is as important as how they live.
Not all parts of the United States are the same when it comes to how much and what kind of energy is used. That makes a huge difference in how to attack our energy problems.
There’s evidence for this in the latest federal statistics on carbon emissions by state and per capita. Some regions are just pumping a lot more greenhouse gases into the atomosphere than others. Consider this chart from the Energy Information Administration of carbon emissions per state, per capita:
A pretty big spread, isn’t it? And there are several reasons why some places pump out more carbon per person than others:
Economics: Some states have economies that produce more carbon than others. The top five per-capita states (Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska, West Virginia and Louisiana) are all big fossil-fuel producers, and you can’t produce fossil fuels without also using fossil fuels to extract and process them. By contrast, New York and Washington D.C. are dominated by office work: finance, government, media and so on. People sitting in offices use fossil fuels, but not as much as people in industry. Plus, these are places with large numbers of people who use public transit as opposed to driving, thus producing less carbon.
Climate: Some of these differences can be explained by geography. Wyoming and Alaska are cold, whereas Hawaii is, well, Hawaiian. So the heating and cooling demands in Hawaii are much less.
Then again, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are cold, too, and yet they’re near the bottom of the scale on carbon emissions. Which leads us to the third and biggest factor:
Energy choices: Vermont hardly produces any carbon emissions at all from producing electricity, and the answer is pretty straightforward: the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant supplies almost all the state’s needs. The other states with low per capita carbon profiles, like Oregon, Idaho, and New York, also get large shares of their electricity from nuclear plants or hydroelectric dams, which don’t produce any greenhouse gases.
This can be a trick question, however, depending on whether a state produces most of its own electricity or ends up buying it from other states. Wyoming and West Virginia not only produce their own electricity using coal, but they also export it to other states. So they produce a lot of greenhouse gases, even if the electricity itself is used elsewhere. In addition to its own hydropower, Idaho imports about half of its electricity, so the state’s carbon profile is low. The same goes for California, which consistently imports a lot of the electricity it needs.
All this means that the impact of energy policy varies significantly by state. Huge amounts of effort have been spent on “think global, act local” initiatives, but the impact of those efforts is going to vary. It’s useful when someone in Vermont or Idaho swaps out swap out light bulbs and buys energy-efficient appliances, but the energy saved was probably not produced using fossil fuels. Those same changes will have a much bigger per capita impact in places that get most of their power from coal, like West Virginia or Indiana.
By contrast, carbon emissions in California and Vermont most come from petroleum, so changes in the way people drive would have the biggest payoff there.
The fact is that most people around the nation don’t know where their electricity comes from, and don’t have that much say about it, at least on a day-to-day basis. If you live in the Pacific Northwest or New England, you probably get your electricity from hydropower or nuclear plants. If you live in the Midwest or South, you’re probably getting more of your energy from coal or natural gas.
Those are the decisions where the public needs more of a voice. Nationally, the trend is to replace coal with natural gas, which is cleaner than coal but still a fosil fuel (and controversial because of the technique of fracking).
But too many citizens don’t pay enough attention to the pivotal choices being made in their own cities and states. So the next time you glance at a headlines in the local paper about the plans for a new power plant or ideas for increasing solar and wind power locally, or changes that would reduce commuting in your area and make it easier to telecommute, remember these decisions are really where the action is in curbing fossil fuel use. Making your voice heard here could be just as good for the planet as ditching your old incandescent light bulbs—maybe more so.