There was some hubbub a couple of weeks ago when researchers produced a carbon emissions map of the US. Using direct CO2 emissions, we saw this first-of-its-kind map:

us carbon map

Unfortunately, the map looks a lot like a population density map. That’s for obvious reasons, since the larger share of cars, buildings, and industry tend to be where the people are. But by turning major cities red, it leads one to the wrong conclusion. Looking at the map, you might think that the northeast was the nation’s big carbon problem, while the dessert West and the Rockies were doing something really right. And I suppose that’s true on one level: there’s not a lot of carbon being emitted in the wide open spaces of the West.

But check out what happens when the researchers added population density to calculate per capita carbon emissions. It’s a completely different perspective:

us carbon map per cap
















On this reading, the real problem is the West. The nation’s cool spots are the relatively densely-settled eastern areas.

Now, we all know that per capita emissions don’t matter a whit to the atmosphere. All that matters is the total amount of carbon. But without understanding the population-based side of the equation, we’re unlikely to understand how to fix our emissions problem. The key, as it turns out, is not for our economy to function like it does in West Texas or Wyoming, but more like it does in cities.

Links to bigger version and explanations are here.