A common concern for Americans thinking about climate policy is that emissions caps could really disrupt our lives, making it far more expensive to heat and cool our homes, drive, and run businesses – effectively cutting our incomes. Most countries in Western Europe generate half the emissions per person that we do in the United States, and yet it would be hard to claim that, say, the unfortunate denizens of Spain, France, or Italy live sadder, darker, colder, and generally more parsimonious lifestyles than Americans.

A little closer to home: The two extremes in per capita U.S. state incomes differ by about 2 to 1 (Connecticut’s average income is about twice Mississippi’s). Our research at SEI-US has shown, however, a 6 to 1 difference in emissions per capita among U.S. states, from 77 metric tons of carbon dioxide (mT CO2) in Alaska to just 12 in Vermont, after adjusting for interstate electricity trade (some U.S. states export their extra electricity to other states; we assign these emissions to the states where the electricity is used). Even after excluding emissions from industry, commercial establishments, and government, there’s still a 5 to 1 ratio among states’ per capita transportation and residential (heat and electricity) emissions.

California and Texas provide a useful spotlight on these differences: For transportation and residential uses, Californians generated 9 mT CO2 per person, compared with Texans’ 13 mT CO2. California, however, is richer than Texas – the average incomes in the states are $27,000 and $22,000, respectively. California has higher incomes, but lower emissions.

Emissions per person (in metric tons of CO2)
California Texas
Industrial 2.8 11.2
Commercial 1.9 4.1
Transportation 6.7 8.7
Direct residential (heating) 0.8 0.5
Residential electricity 1.1 4.1
Total 13.3 28.6

Here’s an interesting climate policy idea: If all Americans made the “sacrifice” of living like Californians, U.S. emissions would drop by 40 percent and global emissions by 8 percent as a consequence!

If, instead, U.S. per capita emissions equaled those of Texas, U.S. emissions would increase by 35 percent, and global emissions by 7 percent.

For more on California and Texas’ emissions check out my report with Frank Ackerman and Kristen Sheeran on why there are such big differences in per person emissions from state to state published by the Economics for Equity and the Environment (E3) Network. We are currently at work on updating these figures using the most recent data. The data included above are for 2005; average incomes are in 2005 dollars.