I had a recent argument with a coworker (we are both engineers) that the amount of pollution generated by a person increases with the person's income (we both agreed on that)... but my coworker claimed that the fact that person lives in a big city or in a small town does not affect the amount of pollution, which I don't agree with. However I do agree that it is hard to estimate the average pollution generated by these two different lifestyles since in the in big cities people are more inclined to use public transportation, will have smaller residences which in turn will require less heating (we are in France, so assume Paris), but consume more disposable items and the foodstock have to be transported from more distant places.

However people in big cities have higher income on average, thus they probably generate more pollution based on this, according to my coworker.

But, for the same income, do both lifestyles, on average, generate the same amount of pollution or not?

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  • 1
    Just because a residence is smaller doesn't mean it requires less heating. The effectiveness of insulation, if any, is a factor. Other factors are the efficiency & effectiveness of the type of heating - electric, gas, wood, coal, oil, etc. Also, each energy type produces different amounts & types of pollution. Coal, oil & wood produce more pollution than gas - in terms of CO2 & particulate matter released into the atmosphere. In terms of electric heating, France uses a lot nuclear energy. How do you want to consider nuclear waste as pollution? – Fred Oct 29 '17 at 7:41
  • @Fred: It's incorrect that wood releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than other forms of heating. The CO2 from burning wood was extracted from the atmosphere relatively recently, and would return to the atmosphere anyway when the tree dies and decays. As long as you keep wood us less than natural growth, it's carbon neutral. – jamesqf Oct 29 '17 at 17:49
  • This question is actually a duplicate of sustainability.stackexchange.com/questions/6237 but since this one has an answer I'll close the other one as duplicate – THelper Oct 30 '17 at 15:13

Quick summary:
The city and the country both have positives and negatives in pollution production... the data here suggests perhaps the urban core produces slightly less pollution (depending upon how you score follow-on effects)...
But both areas fall far far short of the exurbs, where people combine the negatives of both the city and the country for increased comfort and wealth.

We can get a great look at the issue by looking at the US... particularly the CoolClimate Maps from UC-Berkeley. Hopefully it's all the data detail you're hoping for and more... with not just a map, but a breakdown of the different contributions for local transportation, housing, food, goods, and services needs.

However, looking at that, it appears the actual answer to your question is probably it depends, but there's a third party area that outweighs them both...

To take a greater look I selected Oklahoma since it shows a reasonably fair mix of some important features (and I have a large connection to the region). But you'll see the same thing almost anywhere when comparing it to a map. The image shows the overall carbon footprint per household:

Oklahoma Pollution

You can see that the pollution level within the three largest cities themselves (which account for over 1/4 of the state's population just within those three city limits) is actually quite low.

Likewise though, the very distant rural areas -- large distances from the big cities -- tend to also avoid the darkest oranges and reds primarily.

Much of it indeed goes back to all of your hypotheses... yes, urban areas likely have to have food and such travel further to reach them. But the rural folks also counteract that to varying degrees... by having to travel much greater distances for much smaller resource scales. Whether it's visiting friends/family, having the mail delivered, seeking entertainment, following up medical needs, or many other things, it takes more gas. This image (attributed to CoolClimate Berkeley, but found on Business Insider) shows the additional travel done when living out in the country:

Travel Distances

In addition, economics generally causes large bulks of resources to be moved in the most efficient way possible in urban areas, whereas often folks will travel many many miles for small objects that can be obtained more easily in cities.

Plus resources like power and water require more pollution to transport over larger distances or generate locally than they do in the more streamlined bigger cities.

In rural areas, there is some important variability in these maps.
I believe a lot of it comes back to a very central choice made in the calculation methodology: what part of rural pollution for travel and goods should actually be attributed to the urban areas?
Why do I say that? Because it seems the yellower and oranger rural areas line up a great deal with the following map (from the USDA Census of Agriculture):

enter image description here

It appears that greater agricultural production hurts regions. Western Oklahoma (you can see the border on the far left side of my screenshot) is a big wheat area and shows up yellow, as does much of the corn belt nearer the Great Lakes on the larger map (on the website)... while the lighter areas in southeast Oklahoma grow much less... and if you look for greenest colors overall on the larger US map... much of the western half stands out like a "green thumb"... not-so-coincidentally where very little is grown in the deserts sand mountains. (If you look carefully, you can probably pick out the Central Valley of California as a duller green overall, despite its high efficiency)

What causes the agricultural areas to show higher pollution? Probably because they must run significant machinery through the year, and have greater transportation requirements to get in supplies and then deliver their harvest.

So the question then goes to: how much are the resource these agricultural areas using properly being broken down between the rural producers and the urban consumers? In the end, I know not. But it's certainly worth considering. In the end, it might just as well be fair to consider the agricultural resource needs to be more of a sunk cost, as someone must produce the food regardless... and to henceforth instead spread it around equally to all consumers rather than laying it to the fault of the agricultural regions.

In the end, though, the most troubled areas always appear to fall in the same locations: suburban communities. See this map of Atlanta:

enter image description here

On the left is the pollution image. On the right is the loosely matched up city limits of all the larger-sized suburbs around the Atlanta area. And the result again is that not only is downtown Atlanta (the star) not too bad... but even many of the nearby suburbs aren't too bad.

However, near/beyond the black ring (which is about 25 miles), you hit the worst. Atlanta has a lot of sprawl. But I checked dozens of decent-sized cities all around the US, every one showed the same structure, with a greener inner-core, and then a redder area around the edge of the city.

People in such distant suburbs go there seeking to take advantage of the best mashup of the economic benefits of a big city yet with the cheaper costs and rural feel of living nearer the county.

Instead, they end up merging up the greater consumption and larger food import distances of the big city with the greater required travel distances for wants and needs plus decreased efficiency. And the combination ends up being the worst of both worlds, at least in terms of carbon dioxide production.

  • You're welcome Gabriel :-) One thing I realize I failed to cover was wealth, trying to remove that from the equation. Hard, though you could try to overlay the map versus an income breakdown map. Then again, things typically cost more in the city, so comparing buying power rather than income would say more. – JeopardyTempest Oct 29 '17 at 16:48
  • Indeed this was missing, but the rest was so detailed that I think it was worth it. I think that the absolute income should be taken into account, since my theory is that people that want to have a more environmentally friendly lifestyle should move to the countyside without loss to their salaries. Your answer seems to disprove my theory, so I should improve it a bit. – Gabriel Diego Oct 29 '17 at 16:51
  • Certainly if you're prone to going to the city regularly, it seems to undermine any of the benefits. – JeopardyTempest Oct 30 '17 at 1:03
  • Is transportation the major source of pollution? – Gabriel Diego Oct 30 '17 at 8:45
  • Looks like on the CoolClimate maps, it's generally the top one, except perhaps in very cold or hot areas (where housing seems to trend upwards, likely due to heating/cooling costs?) – JeopardyTempest Oct 30 '17 at 8:53

My contribution to pollution comes from three main areas:

  • my travel, both the daily commute as well as shopping, visiting, and recreation
  • how I heat my house
  • stuff I buy and throw out

If you truly want to hold everything else constant, the country-dweller will have far more travel (since everything is further apart.) It is my experience, however, that people don't move to the country and then commute one hour longer each day. They move there and work from home, for example, as I do. Most days I do not leave my house. About once a week I drive for an hour or two total for shopping or visiting. I also have two trips a month to the Big City for medical reasons, but I generally do those by public transit. So I will argue that the countryside self-selects for people who drive, and in general travel, less than the city-dwellers.

Here in Canada, country people are more likely to heat, at least partially, with wood, which is quite a polluting thing to do. Generally we can't get gas, so oil and electric are the main options. I think electric is the least polluting here, because much of it is either hydro or nuclear. Your country may vary on that. Since city people can get gas, they are more likely to pollute from their heating, though I expect the use of wood is a bigger factor.

Finally on the stuff front, country people can have a compost pile, they can pile their leaves and brush somewhere in the woods instead of burning them or expecting the municipality to collect them, and they often have to take large things to the dump themselves, which I can tell you is a powerful motivator to keep things for longer. The country folks I know consume less. We also grow at least some of our own food. (I get my food straight from a farm, usually by riding my bike to pick up my "share" once a week. In the summer I can go far longer than a week between those trips to town to shop as a result.)

I think I personally pollute far less than most people, and at least some of that is because of where I live. Things that are easy for me to do are hard for city people to do. (For example I can take stuff out to the compost whenever I want instead of waiting for the weekly city pickup, and I don't have to use plastic bags for my compostable waste, I just take it out to the pile.) I am not sure your theoretical question can be answered in general, but I would tend to the "less polluting" side of things.

  • I share your anecdotal account with my parents' who live in a small city. Both owned cars and drove them for their commute which was shy of 1 mile. My dad's car had 30000 miles after 10 years, and since I drove them on long trips I guess that I put some 20% of that mileage only on freeways on the sporadic trips. We did have a big house, but income was a little low, so we did not buy very expensive belongings (like furniture or electronics) which had to last long. – Gabriel Diego Oct 31 '17 at 15:48
  • However for a real answer I would expect a study on everyone's lives, not only individual ones. Your story adds a bit to understand the issue but does not reflect the whole social habits. – Gabriel Diego Oct 31 '17 at 15:52

Much depends on the local hierarchy of settlement. Canada tends to have smaller numbers of larger cities. There are relatively few cities in the 50-100K class.

At present I live on a farm. (I grow landscape trees) * It's 6 miles to the nearest village. This is where I pickup parcels, and sometimes milk. It's also where I can take my lawnmower to be fixed, and buy an oil filter for my tractor.

  • It's 15 miles to the nearest hardware/lumber store.

  • It's 35 miles to the nearest town that has two grocery stores. This is also the distance to the nearest movie theatre. This is also my opthamalogist (I have glaucoma -- frequent eye checkups.)

  • It's 50 miles to the nearest large city.

Our gasoline bill is lower now than when we lived in the city. We make fewer trips and more of the mileage is at highway speed. We work hard to combine multiple errands into a single trip. Still we are putting about 20,000 miles a year on our vehicles.

Our natural gas bill is about the same year round. We heat mostly with wood. NG heats hot water, and one bathroom. I have 15 acres that I manage as a woodlot. This is not possible in the city.

We tend to almost all of our grocery shopping on one day a month. One of the big city chains gives 15% off on the first Tuesday of the month. We run two freezers, but they are outside on the porch, and don't run very often in winter.

A side effect of this is that we eat proportionally more frozen veg than fresh veg.

We own a lot of steel: Two cars, a pickup truck, one 3 ton tractor, 1 3/4 ton tractor, two trailers, a few tons of implements. In addition to the IC engines on the tractors, we have two riding lawnmowers, a push mower, an auger, a soil mixer, a generator.

We have one set of friends in Nordegg, AB. For them Nordegg is their Warburg, Rocky Mountain House is 120 km away, is a town of about 5000. Another 120 km will get them to Red Deer which is about 80K people -- one of the few midsize towns. Or they can do 180 instead and get into Edmonton.

If you live in the eastern part of the province, the small towns 500 to 2K are still fairly common, but you may drive for 2 hours to get to a town that has multiple grocery stores.

We have other friends who run a B&B in Vancouver. They have 5 grocery stores within a 6 block radius. Prices tend to be about 40% higher than here, mostly due to much higher land prices. But they don't have to pay for vehicle usage to go grocery shopping. Because they have to carry or cart the grocs uphill, they tend to buy only enough for a few days. This is much more common in Europe.

Overall I would say I have a much larger carbon footprint than my vancouver friends, but not as large as the more rural parts of the province.

  • That's a good anecdote. While it is mostly easy to see in rural lifestyles the carbon footprint, in big cities it may be harder to see some hidden environment impacts, like the maintenance of subway systems, higher consumption of small packed products which are transported from farther away and with higher losses (big supermarket chains buy products cheaper so they can afford more mishandling). City lifestyle is more superficial than a rural one, so people consume more high end brands while rural people rather invest in their property. – Gabriel Diego Nov 28 '17 at 23:27

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