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Harvard Law Review: Housing policy is climate policy

June 25, 2024 | By Cathy Reisenwitz

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A recent Harvard Law Review article makes a point that’s pretty obvious, once you think about it. Housing policy is climate policy. But, as the article points out, most of us don’t think about it that way – at least not yet.

First, a few facts. Transportation is the single-biggest source of US greenhouse gas emissions,

accounting for about 30% of the total. While long flights take a lot of heat, cars and trucks are responsible for 60% of that 30%.

Thus, the single most impactful policy change any city can make to combat climate change is to reduce driving. And the most effective way for a city to reduce driving is to reduce sprawl and incentivize walking, biking, and transit use by eliminating exclusionary zoning and building densely. Not shockingly, “Denser zoning leads to lower rates of vehicle use,” according to 

Harvard Law Review.

But less driving is only part of why people who live in dense cities produce significantly fewer carbon emissions per capita than suburb-dwellers. 

People who live densely use about 40% less electricity and 50% less water than people who live in sprawl. Compactly built homes require fewer building materials per family and require less energy to heat and cool than larger homes. Heating and cooling alone account for 43% of the average home’s energy use. Reducing driving also benefits the environment in other ways. For example, 78% of the microplastic in the ocean comes from car tires. Large lawns are also demonstrably absolutely terrible for the environment

Instead of fighting sprawl and encouraging density, most US cities do the opposite. Exclusionary zoning ordinances such as Huntsville’s Zoning Ordinance mandate large homes, large yards, and single-family development that force residents to drive long distances to access jobs, retail, and services. 

Which is why “interventions that make dense zoning possible are necessary to reduce the copious emissions that sprawl engenders,” according to Harvard Law Review. 

Many oppose exclusionary zoning on the basis of affordability. “Restrictive [zoning] policies exacerbate the country’s widespread lack of housing, resulting in the affordability crisis that the United States faces today,” according to Harvard Law Review. But legalizing density “addresses the multiple overlapping crises of climate change, housing unaffordability, and racial segregation,” making it “exactly what policymakers should advocate for.”