If Causality is Complicated Enough, You Can Take Credit For Anything

Apparently California has passed a new law that requires land use planning to be tied to the CARB CO2 emissions limits.  Well, all of us who make our money in neighboring states will certainly be happy to have yet more Californians driven into our arms.

This effort is based in part on the claim, which I see all the time, from here, based on a Brookings Report here:

Residents of Portland emit 35 percent less carbon per capita than those of other US cities

Portland is the #1 poster child for "smart growth" style urban planning,  and so smart growth advocates have decided that Portland's low carbon footprint is due to smart growth.

Interestingly, though Brookings certainly supports smart planning, their study has moments of honesty that everyone tries to ignore.  For example, it makes points I have made over and over about the cities at the top of the electrical efficiency and low emissions lists:

The fuel mix used to generate electricity matters in residential footprints. A high-carbon fuels mix significantly penalizes the Ohio Valley and Appalachian regions, which rely heavily on coal power. Alternatively, hydro-reliant metro areas such as Seattle have substantially smaller residential footprints.

Pricing influences the electricity component of the residential footprints. Each of the 10 metro areas with the lowest per capita electricity footprints in 2005 hailed from states with higher-than-average electricity prices, including California, New York, and Hawaii. Many Southeastern metro areas, on the other hand, with high electricity consumption per capita have had historically low electricity rates.

Weather unmistakably plays a role in residential footprints. High-emitting metro areas often concentrate in climates that demand both significant cooling and heating, such as in the eastern mid-latitude states. In contrast, the 10 metro areas with the smallest per capita residential footprints are all located along the West Coast, with its milder climate.

So, let's take Portland.  It has a mild climate, it has higher than average utility prices, and its electricity is supplied in large part by zero-emission hydro plants.  Small wonder it does well on the footprint analysis.  But given all these advantages, supp0rters want to claim Portland is near the top not due to any of this stuff but due to land planning and mass transit?  In fact, transit's share of commutes in Portland has been steadily falling for years, despite the urban legends to the contrary.

But here is another reality check on the list -- Portland is #3.  #1 on the list is Honolulu, a very mild climate and certainly no poster child for anti-sprawl.  Even more telling is #2 - Los Angeles.  LA has an even lower carbon footprint than Portland.  So much for smart growth and transit ridership as the main explanation!   Even Phoenix, the most spread out non-transit-using city in the country is above average at #21 out of 100, despite having what is most certainly NOT a mild climate.   My guess is that it has something to do with that clean, carbon friendly nuclear power plant just outside of town, the largest in the US.

Postscript: This report claims that smart planning is better than a carbon tax because people don't respond to changes in gas and electricity prices.  But the fact that the lowest carbon footprints and lowest per capita electrical use areas correspond with those with the highest prices gives the lie to that proposition.


  1. Captain Obviousness:

    Speaking of taking credit when causalty is hard to prove - what do you want to bet that any decrease in global temperature over the next 20 years will be attributed to the valiant steps we took to lower CO2 emissions? Even if, as I assume will be the case, we do not decrease CO2 emissions more than a negligible amount, and all of the actions we take are token gestures, the alarmists will be forced to say that their noble battle against Big Oil and The Corporations saved the planet.

  2. James H:

    This is certain to happen. Credit for reducing the ozone hole has been claimed by Montreal Protocol advocates, but I'm pretty sure the whole CFC-ozone hole link has been disproven (it was another bad exercise in computer models).

  3. Not Sure:

    George Costanza: "Jerry, just remember, it's not a lie if you believe it."

  4. Anon:

    "...because people don’t respond to changes in gas and electricity prices."

    I thought to myself, "No way could the report have said that. That is just nuts -- no one could make that bizarre claim with a straight face."

    So I checked, the report did just that and even gave a cite.

    I am just stunned at the willful ignorance -- still there in the face of the recent gasoline price spike and drop in gasoline consumption.

  5. Tomcatshanger:

    Industry heavy Houston/Baytown/Sugarland beat out hippie Austin as well as Dallas/Ft Worth.

    That's a surprise. I would think the Austin hippie's would turn out better. And I didn't expect that Dallas would do worse than Houston, for the same reason, Houston has a ton of industry.

  6. K:

    Many people have the trait of taking credit for things they had nothing to do with.

    Thus some Oregonians think hydro-electric dams constructed before their birth are proof of their personal merit.

    On the flip side are those so quick to toss collective guilt upon others. Perhaps for what your ancestors "may" have done centuries ago. This can sometimes be offset; people who live in Berkeley or San Francisco get a pass.

    I say "may" because those tossing the guilt don't know you personally, you just seem like you might have the wrong background.

    Even those residing in Eugene have a much larger carbon footprint than 50% of the worlds people. That's right, they are a part of the problem.

    And while they sip their latte and smoke some pot children die in Africa. But, unlike the people in Red States, they care about those children. So they are good.

  7. SuperMike:

    Since you run some campgrounds in California, where (presumably) trees grow, you should sell "planning credits" on the California Market.