White households in US emit most carbon despite greater energy efficiency

November 22, 2021

Residential energy use represents roughly one-fifth of annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

A team of researchers from McGill University and the University of Michigan has used data from 60 million individual American households to look into how carbon emissions caused by household energy use vary by race and ethnicity across the country.

Paradoxically, this first national-level analysis found that even though energy-efficient homes are more often found in white neighborhoods, carbon emissions from these neighborhoods are higher than in African American neighborhoods.

“Our analysis shows that homes in majority African American communities have poorer energy efficiency than those in Caucasian neighborhoods. However, carbon emissions are still higher in Caucasian neighborhoods because homes in these areas are generally larger,” said Benjamin Goldstein, assistant professor in McGill’s Department of Bioresource Engineering and lead author of the study. He is also a former University of Michigan postdoctoral research fellow.

The study was published online Nov. 17 in the journal Energy Research & Social Science. Co-authors are Joshua Newell and Tony Reames of the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.

The research team arrived at its conclusions by using statistical modeling to look at factors such as building age, ownership and size by neighborhood. They also point to the fact that historical housing policies, particularly ‘redlining’—a discriminatory practice in which loans were withheld from potential customers who resided in neighborhoods considered ‘financially risky’—overwhelmingly affected African American neighborhoods and forestalled home improvements that would reduce energy demand.

“In African American neighborhoods, homes are older and there is less floor area per person compared to Caucasian neighborhoods. This means that more people are living in a smaller space, but that these spaces are less energy efficient,” Goldstein said.

He pointed to other smaller case studies where communities of color in American cities not only often live in less energy-efficient homes, but also have higher relative energy bills, especially if they are renting, and are more likely to be impacted by energy insecurity and/or poverty (i.e., higher risk of disconnection or foregoing other expenses to pay utility bills).

“There is a clear imbalance between benefits and burdens of our energy system. This new study demonstrates that the racial disparities in residential energy efficiency we identified in previous studies in places like Kansas City and Detroit are not simply isolated concerns in a few urban African American communities,” said study co-author Reames, an assistant professor at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.

“This is a far-reaching, systemic national challenge that must be addressed by deliberate, targeted policy and investments,” said Reames, who is also a senior adviser on energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy.

The researchers outline policy recommendations for building a low-carbon housing sector in the U.S. They also point out that solving this emissions paradox will require financial support to help homeowners and renters in communities of color make energy retrofits and gain increased access to green energy, while at the same time setting in place disincentives for egregiously high carbon emitters.

“There are 120 million existing homes in the U.S., and policymakers in Washington are hammering out the Build Back Better Act as we speak. Within this bill are programs that will directly address long-standing inequities in the residential housing sector that we have identified in this study,” said Newell, senior author of the study and an associate professor at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability. “These include significant investments in Healthy Buildings, such as upgrades to boost energy efficiency in public housing and related weatherization investments.

“The findings of this study speak to a broader call for environmental justice and climate justice in our communities and are especially timely as world leaders are coming out of the latest round of climate negotiation at COP26.”

Financial support of the work was provided by the National Science Foundation through the Environmental Sustainability Program.

Written by Frédérique Mazerolle, McGill University


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