By the Footprint

Austin steps to top of list of U.S. cities with lowest carbon footprints

Austin steps to top of U.S. cities with lowest carbon footprints

Austin skyline with Barton Springs Pool and Lady Bird Lake
Austin's status as a green city helped it match cities with much higher populations to spread their eco burdens. RoschetzkyIstockPhoto/Getty Images

People looking to travel to a sustainable city probably don’t have Texas spots at the top of their lists. Images of oil, cars, and blasting air conditioners spring up. The Texas power grid, no one need remind us, is barely hanging on.

But Texas blew other states away for lowest carbon footprint per capita, landing Houston at the top of the list compiled by travel blog Park Sleep Fly. Austin followed (No. 3), then San Antonio (No. 4) and Dallas (No. 9). Only Florida appeared twice in the top 10, and none matched Texas with four cities.

Among the 50 most visited in the U.S., those with the lowest carbon footprint are:

1. Houston
2. Los Angeles
3. Austin
4. San Antonio
5. Tampa, Florida
6. Salt Lake City
7. Phoenix
8. Miami
9. Dallas
10. Portland, Oregon

Houston is not exactly a green place, with abysmal utilization of public transportation. It and Dallas tied for third place among least sustainable cities in the same report.

“Public transit isn’t the most popular mode of transportation in Houston, but it does exist,” an online publication called TripSavvy drably admits. The city takes credit for employing “nearly one third” of the nation’s oil and gas extraction workers.

On the renewable side, however, Houston claims more than 100 solar energy companies, and at least half of its corporate research and development centers pursue “energy technology and innovation.” And its huge population spreads the load, leaving only 14.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per resident — the same as Los Angeles. Big cities seem to have an advantage in this rating system.

Austin is just behind Houston at 15 metric tons per capita, neck-and-neck with San Antonio at 15.2. These two cities have smaller populations to distribute their total footprint, but are generally seen as eco-friendly. Austin got a big head start in 1991 with the introduction of the Austin Energy Green Building program — the first of its kind in the whole country — which created an evaluation system for individual building sustainability that’s still in use. Dallas' carbon footprint is the largest of the Texas cities in the ranking, at 16.5 metric tons per capita.

As such a multifaceted issue (especially tied up in economic concerns), sustainability is hard to pin down from city to city. The multiplicity of this list is yet another indicator that Texas as a whole is a much more nuanced place than many people think.