Greater Houston has many reputations, many good, some more challenging. We’re the Space City, Clutch City and home to the medical capital of the world. We’re also known to be the Bayou City, the Energy Capital of the World and a car city, to name a few. On their own each reputation speaks to a different facet of our region. But when viewed collectively, they have broader, more troubling implications for our region’s health.
Over the past several decades, population growth and urban development have contributed to historic economic expansion throughout Greater Houston’s three-county area. This expansion has led to new job opportunities, expanded access to vital resources and created new community spaces for recreation. It has also had considerable consequences for our natural environment, including impacts on our region’s natural resources as well as its air and water quality. And the fact that we are on the frontlines of the effects of climate change has additional implications for our region as we continue to face extreme weather in the future.
The preservation of Greater Houston’s natural environment is crucial to the ongoing health of our region and its residents. Though there are many factors influencing Houston’s environment, these broader trends are an important first step in understanding where our region stands and, ultimately, working to protect it moving forward.
1) Greater Houston emits about 68 million metric tons of industrial greenhouse gas emissions
According to a 2019 report by the EPA, energy production and consumption account for 61.2% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and as the “energy capital of the world,” Houston plays a significant role in creating and managing harmful greenhouse gases.
Greenhouse gases (e.g., carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change both in our region and around the world. Houston-area greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise, even with the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily reducing road traffic and energy use.
Between 2011 and 2017, total greenhouse gas emissions generated by industrial facilities in the three-county region fell 3%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Non-biogenic carbon dioxide (C02 ) emissions (derived from fossil fuels) fell by 3% and biogenic C02 fell 40% while methane and nitrous oxide emissions increased by 6% and 2%, respectively. Since 2017, total greenhouse gas emissions have ticked back up 2%. While non-biogenic C02 has remained flat between 2017 and 2019, methane emissions have increased 22% in the last two years and biogenic C02 fell 44%, according to the EPA.
2) Our region is increasingly reliant on cars
Greenhouse gas emissions generated by industrial facilities are only part of the equation. Automobiles contribute to 28.9% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions in the country, and Greater Houston is a very car-reliant region. Between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of Houston-area households that own at least one car grew one percentage point to 94.7%. This is higher than the national rate of 91.4%, which grew by only 0.5 percentage points over the same time period. Further, Houston-area residents are purchasing more vehicles at a faster pace than the nation overall, and they’re spending more time in them.
Between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of households with three or more vehicles in the three-county area grew by 38% — more than double the 15% national growth rate. All these cars on the road contribute to higher than average commute times, with 13.3% of three-county residents reporting 60-90+ minute daily commutes..
This disparity isn’t simply a matter of Houstonians preferring to drive or not caring about the environment — for most residents, public transit and/or walking simply aren’t practical options.
In both Fort Bend County and Montgomery County — where residents face above average commute times — fewer than 5% of households live within ¼ mile of a public transit stop. While Harris County fares better thanks in part to continued efforts by METRO, most households in the area are still out of walking distance from a public transit stop. As a result, only 2.3% of Houston-area workers commute on public transit — less than half the national rate.
As most residents know, in general, walkability is not one of the Houston area’s strong suits.
On average, Montgomery County has fewer than 0.6 linear miles of connected sidewalk per square mile of land. While Fort Bend County and Harris County are more walkable with 4.4 miles and 7.6 miles of connected sidewalk per square mile of land, respectively, it’s clear that making Greater Houston more walkable needs to remain a priority of our region’s ongoing growth strategy.
3) Wetlands and farmland shrink as developed land increases
It’s no secret that Greater Houston is growing, and with that growth comes a shift in how we use our region’s natural resources. In recent years, our region’s land cover has shifted heavily in favor of developed land, which makes up more than 1,800 square miles of our region.
Between 2001 and 2018, the percentage of developed land grew by 18–19% in all three counties, accompanied by some other striking changes throughout the region. In Fort Bend County, farmland decreased from 59% of total land cover in 2001 to 15% by 2018. In Harris County, forest and wetland continued to lose already low shares of land cover — as they did throughout the region — dropping to 10% and and 4%, respectively. Also noteworthy is the increase in pasture/grassland throughout the three-county region. Viewed alongside the region-wide decrease in farmland coverage, this transition may portend even more increases in developed land in the future, as new grassland often preempts additional development on a previously wooded area.
Further Reading: Take a closer look at the state of our region’s water supply →
Of particular concern is the decline in wetland coverage seen throughout the region. The low-and-declining levels of wetland coverage throughout the three-county area in the absence of resilience measures to compensate come with increased risk of flooding from heavy rainfall in urban areas — a growing concern for our region today and in the future.
4) The effects of continued climate change pose distinct challenges for Greater Houston
Extreme precipitation is a problem with which many Houston residents are all too familiar. In the last five years, Houstonians endured four extreme precipitation events that were declared federal disasters, the most costly of which, Hurricane Harvey, dropped more than 60 inches of rain and caused more than $100 billion in damages. If climate change continues at its projected pace, Greater Houston will need to prepare for even more extreme precipitation events.
Over the next 50-60 years, the number of extreme precipitation days is expected to increase from 11.3 in 2020 to 11.6 by 2080. While this increase may seem slight, it’s important to consider the damages our region sustains from these extreme precipitation events, especially when 58% of Houston-area residents currently live in a census tract with increased vulnerability to the effects of natural disasters — many of them low-income and/or Black or Hispanic.
As familiar as Houstonians are with extreme rain, we are even more familiar with intense heat. If climate change trends continue at their current pace, we may need to brace ourselves for even more higher temperatures than we already endure.
Between 2020 and 2050, the number of extreme heat days with temperatures over 95 degrees in the three-county area is projected to grow by as much as 47% to 51% over the next 30 years, with Fort Bend County seeing the most frequent extreme heat days in the region, a deeply problematic projection that has worrisome implications for resident health and energy use throughout the region.
Understanding Houston’s environment is the first step toward meaningful action
We may not be able to control the weather or the implications of population growth, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless in the fight against climate change or in making our region more sustainable and resilient for all who call it home. By taking the time to understand the data, we are one step closer to taking the targeted action that truly matters in our communities, which helps ensure a brighter future for all.
As a community-driven nonprofit, our mission to connect Houston leaders with the data they need to make informed decisions relies on the action and generosity of people like you. Consider exploring how you can get involved with Understanding Houston, and stay tuned to our social media for new data, insights and program updates.