Wealthy Residences Produce 25% More Emissions Than Poorer Households

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A new study finds that richer households produce far more greenhouse gas emissions compared to less affluent homes in the United States. Given that residential power use accounts for at least a fifth of the total emissions of the United States, which ranks as the second biggest emitter in the world by country, these findings have significant implications for the role of wealthier people on the climate crisis. 

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday (July 20), the study analysed 93 million homes in the U.S. and found that the homes of the wealthiest Americans were responsible for a significant portion of the country’s residential emissions. Richer households were found to produce 25% more greenhouse gas emissions due to their larger homes, which uses more energy for lighting, heating and cooling. 

Collectively, the most affluent suburban areas in the country are generating as much as 15 times more emissions than nearby districts that are less rich. By state, the most energy-intensive homes per square foot are in Maine, Vermont and Wisconsin. 

“ZIP-code level analysis shows income is positively correlated with both per capita energy use and emissions, along with the tendency for wealth and living area to increase together,” wrote the study’s research team from the University of Michigan. 

The researchers say that their findings pose significant questions for how to go about tackling the climate crisis. Altogether, American homes account for 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the country, which is roughly equal to the carbon footprint of the entire country of Brazil. 

“Residential energy emissions arise from a combination of economic, urban design, and infrastructural forces,” said the researchers. In order to curb residential emissions, there must be meaningful action taken beyond concurrent grid decarbonisation. 

“If the electrical grid is decarbonized, then the residential housing sector can meet the 28% emission reduction target for 2025 under the Paris Agreement. However, grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels in homes,” said the scientists, who recommended more policies including deep energy retrofits and promoting smaller homes.   

ZIP-code level analysis shows income is positively correlated with both per capita energy use and emissions.

University of Michigan Study

Some of these policies have been proposed by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Earlier this month, Biden backed the House Democrats’ sweeping plan to reach zero-emissions by 2050, which included policies such as weatherising 2 million homes and upgrading 4 million buildings. 

However, the plan will only be implemented if the Democrats are able to retain their House majority, take over the Senate and the White House come January 2021. 

Previous studies have shown that wealthier people generate more greenhouse gas emissions in a number of other activities. In February, a team of Dutch scientists found a link between affluence and food waste. Once people spend over US$6.70 a day, their food waste increases sharply. Food waste currently accounts for an astonishing 10% of global carbon emissions. 

The trend is clear on the macro-level too. Earlier this week, a report from Oslo-based nonprofit EAT found that while G20 states, the largest economies in the world that represent only 10% of countries, they produce almost three-quarters of the total carbon emissions from the global food system predominantly due to meat- and dairy-heavy consumption patterns. 

Another team of scientists say that if just 20% of the world’s richest countries opted for a plant-based diet and slashed food waste by a third, the world could be looking at carbon absorption instead of global heating by 2050. 

Lead image courtesy of Geri Reilly Real Estate. 


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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