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Analysis: Local planning adds to higher carbon footprints in affluent parts of England

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New data reveals how affluent areas across England have larger carbon footprints than poorer ones. Experts attribute this partly to ongoing failures in city planning and call for fundamental changes to create low-carbon neighbourhoods.

The tale of a rich-poor divide for carbon emission responsibility is as old as the finding that greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change. Globally, Oxfam has reported that the wealthiest one per cent emit twice as much carbon as the poorer half of the planet's population. It's no news on a global scale as income levels correlate with greenhouse gas emissions. Wealth still buys a privilege to pollute. But attributing wealth to carbon emission responsibility on a more granular, local level, has been tougher.

Other than using personal surveys or by counting cars parked outside residents’ homes, it's usually harder to comprehensively judge which areas account for a higher consumption-based footprint.

A new carbon footprint data project for England's lower layer super output area (LSOA), hopes to change that and to allow members of the public to investigate their own areas via an interactive map, revealing how their locality contrasts to other neighbourhoods. It may inform individuals’ decisions on where to move next or how they see their neighbourhood develop.

The data provided is proof that carbon inequality holds true for local English areas. E&T's analysis shows that more affluent locally grouped areas account for higher average per-person carbon footprints than among disadvantaged ones. While the group of 'affluent communities' account for an average in consumption of around 12,000kg CO2e per person, LSOA area groupings such as constrained renters (5,000kg CO2e), hampered neighbourhoods (5,000kg CO2e), young ethnic communities (6,500kg CO2e) or ageing urban communities (7,000kg CO2e) emit far less (see chart).

Dr Malcolm Morgan, research fellow in transport and spatial analysis at the University of Leeds, who is also lead researcher on the CREDS project and who created the Place-Based Carbon Calculator, verified the poor-rich divide that E&T found.

The pattern is visible in other research methods such as surveys showing links between income and personal carbon footprints. The researcher is interested to follow up on the topic and plans to publish a paper.

The rural-urban divide is an important predictor of average carbon footprint. Typically, city centres are low carbon, Morgan says. "Urban living tends to be a lower-carbon way of living. Rural and suburban living, on the other hand, tends to be high-carbon".

The problem of carbon footprint intensive areas often goes beyond personal responsibility. Morgan warms: "Areas are not people. A person can’t build a cycle lane". Fundamental changes in how to plan cities and build new housing should shift areas’ carbon responsibly. “We went for the average per-person footprint because we thought it is relatable”. However, he is slightly worried it may backfire. Oil and gas lobbyists notoriously try to turn the emission narrative against individuals - around 20 companies account for more than a third of all emissions.

“It’s less about individual choices. You should talk about structural issues and how to fix them. The data shows there's a problem with neighbourhoods”, he says. Planning and building new housing developments as car-dependent suburbs on the edge of towns and cities – a model some parts of England keep holding on to – worsens the problem.

Instead, the answer is building new homes as transit, walking, and cycling orientated communities closer to town centres to allow people to live low-carbon lifestyles, he says. More importantly and where most of the work lies, there is a pressing need to rebuild existing neighbourhoods, he adds.

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