The study showed how different regions in the European Union fared, often differing significantly from the country average.

The average household carbon footprint for different EU regions. The UK has among the largest carbon footprints of any European country. Graphic: Environmental Research Letters.

When we talk about emissions or carbon footprint, we often refer to things like “the average American” or the “average German household,” but we all know how much things can vary from area to area, or even from city to city. Just look at the US, for instance. Right after President Trump announced his intention to exit the Paris Agreement, 257 mayors representing 59 million Americans expressed the opposite. They reiterated their commitment to the Paris ideals and vowed to stay on track with environmental investments.

Elsewhere, in Europe, who could compare the north of Italy, heavily industrialized and drastically polluted, with the much poorer and crime-ridden, yet greener south of the country? Looking at the country level simply doesn’t tell the whole story, and researchers wanted to change that. In “Mapping the carbon footprint of EU regions,” first author Diana Ivanova and her colleagues mapped the carbon footprints for 177 regions in 27 EU countries, creating the continent’s most detailed map of its kind. They also carried out a similar analysis for the regional water and land usage, which you can see here.

Cutting emissions

The point of this map is not only to help us better understand the distribution of greenhouse gas emissions but also to help us reduce emissions. Even the Paris Agreement features national contributions, not regional contributions. It’s up to every country to decide how it will reach their individual goal. The EU also sets national policy targets but as Ivanova puts it, we need “a finer spatial dimension of consumption-related and environmental information that moves beyond national averages.”

But this analysis doesn’t only go into regional detail, it also shows the greater picture, which is also extremely important. Let’s say that one country wants to reduce its emissions, and it wants to do so by moving a car factory outside its borders. Sure, that might help reduce its own emission, but in the grand scheme of things it just doesn’t do anything. It might actually do more harm than good.

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“If we started importing cars instead of producing them domestically, there may be a drop in country-wide emissions, but the consumption emissions may stay the same — or even increase, depending on the production efficiency,” Ivanova said.

This is why it’s important not only to understand who emits how much, but to always keep an international perspective, encouraging real, sustainable improvements. It’s the embodiment of the “Think global, act local” mantra.

Rich cities, lots of emissions

Of course, if you’d overlay this map to a GDP map, you’d see lots of similarities. Money and CO2 emissions often go hand in hand.

“It makes sense that the richer you are, the greater your purchasing power and the environmental impacts associated with it,” she said. “And the richer you are, the more you fly and drive.”

But this is not necessarily the case, especially in modern times. Renewables are becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and many rich cities are encouraging healthy and sustainable habits. In Germany, Hamburg wants to become car-less in 20 years. In Italy, Milan and Rome are introducing partial car bans to fight rampaging pollution. The age when higher GDP meant more emissions has steadily passed, and economic growth has decoupled from economic growth. More and more, it’s our personal habits and our sources of energy that influence our carbon footprint.

“Different factors influence the way we consume,” she said. “In our study, income appears to explain much of the variation in the regional factors, so essentially if we know how income changes over time, we can hypothesize about how emissions would follow.”

Everyone has to eat

Indeed, Ivanova and her colleagues looked at many individual aspects, finding interesting, though not surprising, differences. For instance, when they looked at emissions from the purchases of clothing, services and manufactured products, Italy and parts of the UK, especially London, had some of the highest emissions. After all, that’s what you’d expect from two of the biggest fashion centers of the world.

But when it came to food consumption, things were largely uniform — everyone has to eat.

But this doesn’t mean that what you eat doesn’t play a key role in our footprint. As we’ve discussed many times before, meat especially plays a huge role in our society’s emissions. In all likelihood, reducing your meat consumption is one of the single most important things you can do in terms of sustainability. So this doesn’t mean that all people eat and what you eat doesn’t matter — instead, it means that both poorer and richer areas host people who are conscious of what they eat, and people who don’t.

To clear this and many other questions, researchers now want to go even deeper. They want to look at all the possible details. For instance, even when discussing something as simple as cheese, things can get quite complex. From the grains the cow is fed, to the conditions the cow is kept in, the fabrication process, the packaging, and then the delivery — it all adds up, and it’s all important. This is what Ivanova wants to clear out in her future work.

“The story of the cheese gets pretty complex, as you can imagine, and every stage comes with environmental impacts,” she said. “We are limited in the detail with which we can explore the global economy and the journey of products.”