Average American Carbon Footprint: Emissions by City and State (Updated 2021)
That’s a great question. Many people don’t know… and some don’t care about how their lifestyle is hurting the planet.
Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), a harmful greenhouse gas (GHG), are at the highest levels ever recorded, and are causing warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, storm severity, and rising sea levels.15
But thankfully, those dynamics are slowly changing. And as more and more people become aware of how high the average American carbon footprint is and why, the easier it will be to reduce it.
First, you’ve got to know the numbers…
What is the Average American’s Carbon Footprint?
A carbon footprint is the total sum of carbon that you emit from your daily activities as an individual.1 This can be either direct or indirect.
Westerners undoubtedly have the biggest climate impact per capita than other nations’ citizens. For example, the average American’s carbon footprint amounts to about 16 tons.2 Experts report that this is one of the highest carbon dioxide emission rates in the world, as the global average is roughly four tons.
Unfortunately, neither one of these rates is ideal.
American Carbon Footprints by State
One of the primary reasons per capita carbon footprints vary across states is the differences in fuel use in the state’s various sectors, such as industrial and commercial. Furthermore, each state’s main fuel source will influence each person’s CO2 output, based on their state.
- Even a state’s physical size can play a part in determining whether its emissions are high, low, or moderate, along with:
- The types of businesses that fuel (pun intended) a state’s economy
- State building standards
- State policies (e.g., mandates to reduce emissions)
- The types of energy resources are available within state boundaries (e.g., hydroelectric, coal, etc.)
In 2016, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that Wyoming residents had the highest per capita emissions in the nation at an astounding 114 tons. At the time, this state was the US’s third-largest energy producer but had the lowest population size of any state.
It’s the state’s low headcount, combined with the high energy use for heating during the cold winters that raise its individual footprints higher than other states’. The rest of the US’s top five states with the highest per capita CO2 emissions are as follows, in units of tons per capita:3
- North Dakota: 79.4
- West Virginia: 57.3
- Alaska: 51.8
- Louisiana: 49.6
Interestingly, New York had the lowest per capita CO2 emissions of all US states in 2016 at 8.8 tons. At first glance, this would be contrary to reasonable expectations, but consider this:
A massive chunk of the NY population lives in the New York City metropolitan area. Here, public transit is readily available. Public transportation is known to be the best travel and commuting alternative for the masses.4 It saves more than 11 million gallons of gasoline per day, reduces congestion on the roads, and generally saves emissions that could have come from private vehicles.
Another reason why New Yorkers have a relatively low carbon footprint is that most of them engage in work that doesn’t demand too much energy consumption: the finance industry. Financial activities accounted for more than 29% of the state’s real GDP in 2017.6
New York’s electricity costs are also higher than most states. As of May 2021, the average price is 21.4 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), 52.9% higher than the national average of 14 cents per kWh. This incentivizes conservative energy use.7
The cumulative influence of these factors allowed New Yorkers to comprise only 6% of the US 2016 population, consuming only 1% of the nation’s energy. Other states with per capita carbon footprints lower than 9.5 tonnes include:
- Rhode Island
American Carbon Emissions by City
If you refine your environmental impact scale a bit further, you’ll start to see that carbon dioxide output varies drastically by city, too. For instance, it makes sense that a bustling metropolitan area will have a higher energy demand than a rural neighborhood. However, the state’s fuel sources for energy production will also play a significant part in GHG emissions.
California and Texas purchased about 84% of the nation’s total renewable energy between 2015-2020.8 They’re the country’s largest energy consumers, yet they have the most wind and solar electricity of the states. That is why most of both these states have lower average household carbon footprints than many others.9
With that said, the cities with some of the lowest per capita carbon footprints were (in tons of CO2 per year):
- San Francisco, California 94104: 20.7
- North Fork, Idaho 83469: 24.7
- Otero County, New Mexico 88317: 39.4
On the other hand, a few of the highest per capita carbon footprints were:
- El Paso County, Colorado 80132: 76.6
- Millbrook, Illinois 60536: 74.5
- Mount Airy, Maryland 21771: 76.2
How Opinions Affect Carbon Footprints
Energy sources aren’t the only things that influence carbon footprints on a regional, city-to-city scale. Opinions on global warming are also a major factor.
Eighty-seven percent of people in San Francisco County, CA believe that global warming is real. This is reflected in the city’s small per capita carbon footprints, each around 21 CO2 yearly. Additionally, 66% of people in Otero County, NM agree on this fact, too.
Interestingly, Idaho and Maryland residents’ perceptions are mixed on whether climate change is a genuine threat or not. Plus, many of Colorado’s and Illinois’s cities report high rates of belief in rising global temperatures yet show some of the highest emission rates.
Visualized data from a Yale survey illustrates that US regions with the lowest proportions of people who believe in climate change (between 50-65%) overlap almost wholly with areas having the highest household carbon footprints.10 This includes:
- Almost the entire Midwest
- Parts of Idaho
- Parts of the East Coast
Sixty-five percent seems to be the threshold separating high and low household energy consumption. Once 65-90% of the population agree that global warming is real, household carbon footprints begin to fall below roughly 48 tons per year.
What’s Your Carbon Footprint?
You produce carbon dioxide emissions all the time. The easiest GHG-producing activities to recognize are those that produce direct emissions.
For example, you produce direct GHG emissions when you drive to and from work, purchase produce from a chain supermarket, and even when you charge your battery-powered electric vehicle on the grid. Since you are directly consuming the energy, the GHGs are coming straight from you.
On the other hand, imagine that you purchase a blender online. This would be an indirect emission since you’re not the one who manufactures or ships the blender. However, you contribute to the demand for manufacturing and shipping, so you are an indirect emitter.
Here are some of the main emissions sources that contribute to your carbon footprint:
- Food: Americans’ food accounts for a significant portion of their GHG output. The typical US household’s CO2 output is about 10-30% food. On a finer, per person scale, food-related emissions, or an individual’s “foodprint,” is about 28.6 tons per year.11
- Household: People’s energy use tends to spike when they get home. This is understandable, as this is where the gaming consoles are, where you shower and cook, somewhere you always come back to at the end of the day. Nationwide, residential energy use accounted for 10% of CO2 emissions in 2018. Heating and cooling are some of the most burdensome, along with refrigeration and laundry.
- Transportation: If you live in a crowded state like California or New York, you know better than anyone that transportation can have a devastating environmental impact. In 2019, vehicles emitted 29% of the country’s total GHGs.12 Additionally, research shows that individual vehicles pump out about 6-9 tons of CO2 yearly.13 Keep in mind that your transportation doesn’t only include your car, but also:
- Medium- and heavy-duty trucks
- Ships and boats
These are typically the main elements that contribute to a person’s carbon footprint. Although these stats give a brief snapshot of Americans’ CO2 output per capita, they’re not set in stone. These numbers can change drastically, depending on where you are in the nation.
Comparing Americans’ Carbon Footprints to Other Nations
Despite the socioeconomic challenges lower class Americans face, this demographic still produces significantly more CO2 per capita than citizens of the following nations (in tonnes CO2/yr):14
- Portugal: 5.3
- France: 5.5
- Sub-Saharan Africa: 0.1
- Brazil: 2.21
- Indonesia: 2.28
- Panama: 2.94
- Philippines: 1.33
Why would America’s working lower class still emit more GHGs per capita than other countries’ citizens with a similar socioeconomic status? A 2016 collaborative study reaffirmed the commonly held belief that the “American poor” are far better off than disenfranchised people in developing countries.14
The researchers stated that poor Americans typically live in larger homes and have access to “goods and luxuries” that are simply not available in other parts of the world. In this case, their relatively high consumption levels are an issue of access, not necessarily the quality of life.
Tracking Your Carbon Footprint
Keeping track of your own impact on the planet is easier than you might think. There are plenty of tools to help you calculate exactly what your carbon footprint is, even based on where you live, the transportation you use, how you eat, and more.
Once you know where your emissions come from, it will be easier to offset them correctly. By mitigating your carbon footprint, you can do your part to make the planet a healthier place to live.
1University of Michigan, Center for Sustainable Systems. (n.d.). Carbon footprint factsheet. https://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet
2Schildgen, B. (2018, April 24). Hey Mr. Green, what should my carbon-footprint goal be? Sierra Club. https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2015-4-july-august/ask-mr-green/hey-mr-green-what-should-my-carbon-footprint-goal-be
3US Department of Energy. (2019, February 27). State-level energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, 2005-2016. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/state/analysis/
4Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. (n.d.). Environmental benefits of public transit. KCATA. https://www.kcata.org/about_kcata/entries/environmental_benefits_of_public_transit
5Lazer, L., Khandelwal, N. J., & Wellman, J. (2020, January 30). Why is sustainable urban transport a great investment? World Bank Blogs. https://blogs.worldbank.org/transport/why-sustainable-urban-transport-great-investment
6Office of the New York State Comptroller. (n.d.). 2018 Financial condition report. https://www.osc.state.ny.us/reports/finance/2018-fcr/economic-and-demographic-trends
7New York-New Jersey Information Office. (n.d.). Average energy prices, New York-Newark-Jersey City-May 2021. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/regions/new-york-new-jersey/news-release/averageenergyprices_newyorkarea.htm
8Gonçalves, T., & Liu, Y. (2020, June 24). How US cities and counties are getting renewable energy. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/insights/how-us-cities-and-counties-are-getting-renewable-energy
9CoolClimate Network. (n.d.). CoolClimate maps: Average U.S. household carbon footprints. https://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/maps
10Marlon, J., Howe, P., Mildenberger, M., Leiserowitz, A. J., & Wang, X. (2020, September 2). Yale climate opinion maps 2020. Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/
11Brighter Planet. (2010). The American carbon footprint: Understanding and reducing your food’s impact on climate change. https://www.kohalacenter.org/HISGN/pdf/carbofoodprint.pdf
12United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Fast facts on transportation greenhouse gas emissions. https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions
13Center for Climate Energy Solutions. (n.d.). Reducing your transportation footprint. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. https://www.c2es.org/content/reducing-your-transportation-footprint/
14Ritchie, H. (2019, October 4). Where in the world do people emit the most CO2? Our World in Data. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from https://ourworldindata.org/per-capita-co2
15U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. Greenhouse gases’ effect on climate – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (2021). Retrieved July 6, 2021, from eia.gov: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/energy-and-the-environment/greenhouse-gases-and-the-climate.php.