Sustainability Climate Change

Wealthy households have 25 percent higher carbon impacts than lower-income homes

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Story at a glance

  • Based on an analysis of 93 million U.S. households, a positive correlation was found between household affluence and carbon emissions.
  • Researchers say technology to improve this is available.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzing more than 90 million U.S. homes’ energy use reveals a relationship between homeowner or resident affluence and emission level. Data ultimately suggest that wealthier Americans have a carbon footprint that is about 25 percent larger than their lower-income counterparts. 

“ZIP-code level analysis shows income is positively correlated with both per capita energy use and emissions, along with the tendency for wealth and living area to increase together,” the study writes. 

This is primarily due to larger house sizes of wealthier Americans. The largest carbon emissions are especially present in wealthy suburban areas, which can be up to 15 times higher than other neighborhoods. 

“This is like a tale of two cities in carbon form,” study author Benjamin Goldstein, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan, told CNN. “Income and greenhouse gases rise together.”

Residential energy use makes up about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. 

Despite homes gradually becoming more energy efficient with options like better insulation and solar panels, the authors note that this sector is still far from achieving the 2050 target set by the Paris Agreement and will likely need a diverse portfolio of zero-emission energy solutions and behavioral change associated with housing preferences. 

Other models featured in the study estimate that states in warm or more mild climate regions use lower amounts of energy, with homes in the chillier North Central and Northeast states using noticeably more. Some of the most energy intensive states in 2015 include Maine, Vermont and Wisconsin. 

States boasting the least energy usage include Arizona, California and Florida. 

For higher income individuals, it’s a function of choice,” said Vincent Reina, an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. “For lower income individuals, it’s a function of constraints.” 

Reina also notes that while wealthier individuals own large homes requiring more energy, low-income households produce a sizable amount of greenhouse gases because they do not have the option to switch to sustainable alternatives. 

Some of the solutions the authors posit include decarbonizing electrical grids, as well as the adoption of lower-energy heating and cooling equipment, such as electric heat pumps. The construction of smaller homes and increasing living density is also a helpful tactic. 

“The technologies are there,” Goldstein told reporters. “Getting to Paris [Climate Accord targets] doesn’t hinge on some miraculous technological solution. The technologies exist today –– it’s about getting them to [people].”