San Francisco is requiring solar panels on all new buildings. But here’s a much greener idea

San Francisco is requiring solar panels on all new buildings. But here’s a much greener idea

One of the greenest, most environmentally friendly moves that big cities like New York or San Francisco or Chicago can make is to increase housing density and allow more people to live in them. And yet, bizarrely, few people seem to think of this as an “environmental” policy.

But it is! And it’s hugely significant. In fact, we can illustrate just how significant by taking a closer look at San Francisco’s new solar law.

San Francisco became the first major US city to require solar panels on all new buildings that have 10 floors or less. (Larger buildings are exempt for now.) Analysts estimate that the resulting solar installations could help avoid 26,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. If we use the EPA’s handy greenhouse gas calculator, that’s the equivalent of taking 5,500 cars off the road.

So it’s a modest step for climate change. But now let’s look at what would happen if we boosted San Francisco’s housing density…

Boosting housing density would be an even greener move

San Francisco currently has a number of NIMBY-ish rules and zoning restrictions that artificially limit the number of housing units that can be built in the city, often by curbing building heights. These laws, in turn, constrain the total number of people who can live in San Francisco and raise housing costs. (There’s also a movement afoot to change these laws.)

Limits on density may reduce San Francisco’s environmental impact, but they increase emissions elsewhere in the country. That’s because the people who can live in San Francisco emit far less carbon dioxide than people living in nearby suburban areas. For one, their apartments tend to be smaller, requiring less energy for heat and electricity. And, because San Francisco is so dense, its residents drive far fewer miles, less than half that of people in nearby counties. If more people could move to San Francisco, overall emissions would go down.

We even have data on this. According to a 2015 report from UCLA, the average person in the city of San Francisco emits just 6.7 metric tons of CO2 per year. By contrast, the average person who lives in the Bay Area emits 14.6 metric tons of CO2 per year. (The national average is about 17 metric tons.)

So if San Francisco relaxed its restrictions and enabled, say, an additional 10,000 people to move from elsewhere in the Bay Area to the city, we could expect that to cut 79,000 metric tons of CO2 per year (to a first, crude approximation). This is three times as much CO2 as the solar panel law would save.

Source: Vox

Date: July 2016

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Tags assigned to this article:
energy policyUnited States

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