28 Sep 2009

What Makes Europe Greener than the U.S.?

The average American produces three times the amount of CO2 emissions as a person in France. A U.S. journalist now living in Europe explains how she learned to love her clothesline and sweating in summer.
By elisabeth rosenthal

It was late and raining this summer when I approached the information desk at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport to inquire about how best to get into the city center. “The fastest is the train, but there are also busses,” the guide said.

“Are there taxis?” I inquired, trying hard to forget the reminders on the Arlanda website that trains are "the most environmentally friendly” form of transport, referring to taxis as “alternative transportation” for those “unable to take public transport.”

“Yes, I guess you could take one,” he said, dripping with disdain as he peered over the edge of the counter at my single piece of luggage.

I slunk into the cab, paid about $60 and spent the 45-minute ride feeling as guilty as if I’d built a coal-fired plant in my back yard. (Note: The cabs at Arlanda are hybrids.) Two days later, although my flight left at 7 a.m., I took the Arlanda Express. It cost half as much and took 15 minutes to the terminal.

Europe, particularly northern Europe, is more environmentally
Europe is constructed in a way that makes it pretty easy to live green.
conscious than the United States, despite Americans’ sincere and passionate resolution to be green. Per capita CO2 emissions in the U.S. were 19.78 tons according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which used 2006 data, compared to 9.6 tons in the U.K., 8.05 tons in Italy, and 6.6 tons in France.

Why have Americans made so little headway on an issue that so many of us feel so strongly about? As a U.S. journalist traveling around Europe for the last few years reporting on the environment, I’ve thought a lot about this paradox.

There is a fair bit of social pressure to behave in an environmentally responsible manner in places like Sweden, where such behavior is now simply part of the social contract, like stopping at a stop sign or standing in line to buy a ticket. But more important, perhaps, Europe is constructed in a way that it’s pretty easy to live green. You have to be rich and self-absorbed, as well as environmentally reckless and impervious to social pressure, not to take the Arlanda Express.

In Europe it is far easier to channel your good intentions into action. And you feel far worse if you don’t. If nearly everyone is carrying a plastic bag (as in New York City) you don’t feel so bad. But if no one does (as in Dublin) you feel pretty irresponsible.

Part of the problem is that the U.S. has had the good fortune of developing as an expansive, rich country, with plenty of extra space and cheap energy. Yes, we Americans love our national parks. But we live in a country with big houses. Big cars. Big commutes. Central Air. Big fridges and separate freezers. Clothes dryers. Disposable razors.

That culture — more than Americans’ callousness about the planet — has led to a lifestyle that generates the highest per capita emissions in the world by far. Per capita personal emissions in the U.S. are three times as high as in Denmark.

But even as an American, if you go live in a nice apartment in Rome, as I did a few years back, your carbon footprint effortlessly plummets. It’s not that the Italians care more about the environment; I’d say they don’t. But
Europe’s environmental consciousness certainly has its own blind spots.
the normal posh apartment in Rome doesn’t have a clothes dryer or an air conditioner or microwave or limitless hot water. The heat doesn’t turn on each fall until you’ve spent a couple of chilly weeks living in sweaters. The fridge is tiny. The average car is small. The Fiat 500 gets twice as much gas mileage as any hybrid SUV. And it’s not considered suffering. It’s living the dolce vita.

My point is that the low-carbon footprints depend on the infrastructure of life, and in that sense Europeans have an immediate advantage. To live without a clothes dryer or AC in the United States is considered tough and feels like a sacrifice. To do so in Rome — where apartments all include a clothes-drying balcony or indoor rack, and where buildings have thick walls and shutters to help you cope with the heat — is the norm.

In many European countries, space has always been something of a premium, forcing Europeans early on to live with greater awareness of humans’ negative effects on the planet. In small countries like the Netherlands, it’s hard to put garbage in distant landfills because you tend to run into another city. In the U.S., open space is abundant and often regarded as something to be developed. In Europe you cohabit with it.

Also, in Europe, the construction of most cities preceded the invention of cars. The centuries-old streets in London or Barcelona or Rome simply can’t accommodate much traffic — it’s really a pain, but you learn to live with it. In contrast, most American cities, think Atlanta and Dallas, were designed for people with wheels.

Still, I still marvel at some of the environmental strategies I’ve witnessed in Europe.

In old Zurich, for example, to discourage waste and reduce trash, garbage collection has long been limited to once a week (as opposed to three times a week in much of New York); recyclables like cardboard and plastic are collected once a month in the Swiss city. Since Zurich residents live with their trash for days and weeks at a time, they naturally try to generate less of it — food comes with no packaging, televisions leave naked from the store.

As I nosed around the apartment of a Swiss financial planner, she showed me the closet for trash. A whole week of her life created the same amount as the detritus of one New York takeout Chinese meal.

Likewise, in Germany, I’ve seen blocks of townhouses that are “passive” houses — homes so efficient they do not need to be heated. And an upscale suburb that had banned cars from its streets; you could own a car, but it had to be kept in a garage at the edge of town where parking spaces cost over $30,000 a year, meaning that few people owned cars and those who did rarely used them for small daily tasks like shopping.

More from Yale e360

The New Urbanists:
Tackling Europe’s Sprawl

In the last few decades, urban sprawl, once regarded as largely a U.S. phenomenon, has spread across Europe. Now an emerging group of planners is promoting a new kind of development — mixed-use, low-carbon communities that are pedestrian-friendly and mass-transit-oriented.
Both were upper-middle-class neighborhoods, but I was struck by how different these German suburbs felt compared to their U.S. socioeconomic counterparts. Houses are smaller, and few are detached. A passive house has to be under 2,000 square feet and basically box-like in order to make it energy efficient. “If someone feels like they need more than 2,000 square feet to be happy, well, that’s a different discussion,” a passive-house architect said.

Many Americans regard these kinds of approaches as alien, feeling we could never go there. I’m not sure. The Europeans I meet in these places are pretty much just like me, inclined to do the right thing for the environment, but insistent on a comfortable life.

There is nothing innately superior about Europe’s environmental consciousness, which certainly has its own blind spots. In Italy, where people rail against genetically modified food, people routinely throw litter out of cars. In Germany, where residents are comfortable in smaller energy efficient homes, there is still a penchant for cars with gas-guzzling engines and for driving fast on the autobahn.

I believe most people are pretty adaptable and that some of the necessary shifts in lifestyle are about changing habits, not giving up comfort or convenience. Though I initially railed about the hassle of living without a dryer or air conditioning in Rome, I now enjoy the ritual of putting laundry on the line, expect to sweat in summer, and look forward to the cool of autumn.


Elisabeth Rosenthal has covered international environmental issues for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune for the last three years, traveling extensively to report on environmental projects. Before that, she was a correspondent in the Times' Beijing bureau for six years. She has a MD from Harvard Medical School.

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Good piece and excellent points, but it bothers me that 'green' is becoming a bit of a knee-jerk anti-Americanism. If, you value wildlife, biodiversity, and wilderness the US looks pretty good in comparison with Europe. Carbon footprints are an important measure of environmental values, but how green is a continent that is basically devoid of large predators? America is guilty of rampant consumerism, but Europe is guilty of plundering the world through colonialism. On either side of the Atlantic there are many past failings to atone for, and much work to do.
Posted by MartyL on 28 Sep 2009

There's just a lot more people in Europe, so public transit becomes a no-brainer because there are enough people around to move.

And there are just as many cars on the streets. There's just more people in the cities, higher density, so a lower proportion uses cars.

I don't really find the cities all that visibly green. It's not like they've got solar panels everywhere or anything like that.
Posted by gullchasedship on 28 Sep 2009

The constant marketing pressure to buy has created a society that is always striving to acquire more: bigger and better cars and homes, trendier clothes, excessive toys and gadgets ...

How do we change direction when there is so much power and money behind maintaining this corporate-consumer relationship?

A grass roots movement to a simpler life is needed but very hard to imagine.
Posted by Grampa Ken: Social Fix! on 28 Sep 2009

The whole point is that they aren't VISIBLY green. It's a lifestyle thing, not a "look at what we're doing" thing. Ms. Rosenthal wasn't writing about the great efforts and extensive changes they're making, and she even said that. Some societies are greener than others just because they've always been that way - solar panels and other flashy technology aren't what she's talking about. There's a lot more to green - for instance, it's better to just use less electricity than use a whole lot but use solar energy to produce it. Solar panels also have to be manufactured and maintained. You're sort of missing the whole point of the article with your last two sentences.
Posted by kristin on 28 Sep 2009

Ms. Rosenthal brings up several valid points regarding differences between European and American societies. But there are rational reasons for some of the difference in energy usage. First, the U.S. climate is much more extreme. A significant portion of the U.S. population lives in areas that are colder and/or warmer than Europe, requiring additional energy. In this regard, Europe is blessed with a climate very buffered by the Gulf Stream and the Mediteranean. Where are the European climate equivalents of the desert southwest, the entire southeast, the plains states, the northern tier states, etc.?

The fairly recent heat wave in Europe that killed thousands of people was less extreme than the temperatures experienced by many Americans every summer. Combined with historically low energy costs, almost all recent U.S. growth has occurred in areas more or less uninhabitable prior to air conditioning. The U.S. has also come of age during the age of the auto, whereas European development pre-dated that era. Finally, I would point out that France's low carbon emissions are significantly influenced by there heavy reliance on nuclear power.
Posted by Jeff H on 29 Sep 2009

Having worked for the enviromental departments for both U.S. and European owned firms, it's quite interesting that Europe is often tagged as green and the U.S. as not. It is true that Europe is much better at moving folks via mass transit, whereas the U.S. is much better at moving freight via train. The U.S. moves ~46% of its freight by train, whereas Europe moves only ~8%. The U.S. banned unleaded gasoline in 1975, whereas Europe waited until the late 1990s. France gets 80% of its electricity from non-C02 producing nuclear power, while the U.S. gets only 20%.

Posted by Dave C on 29 Sep 2009

I have a problem with attributing certain behaviors to "Americans" as a class, as though that's the way all Americans are. Sure, there are some who live the way you describe, but there are others - indeed, whole subcultures - who, as another commenter puts it, "...are greener than others just because they've always been that way". Just as everyone used their clotheslines when I was a kid, so I keep using mine now.
Posted by James on 29 Sep 2009

It sounds a bit like the same old excuses again. Yes, there are differences between Europe and the U.S., but to say that being green or not is down to infrastructure is just an excuse. It is more to do with culture.

If you think you are the greatest country on Earth and can act as the World's policemen, do anything with impunity then this reflects on how you live. Having a regard for the planet and its people is far more about being in touch with what is happening and changing things that harm. That requires a change in attitude away from 'might is right' and an acceptance that each of our actions has a consequence.

I do not see that in the U.S., all I see is a people exercising their 'rights' and shouting long and hard if they think anybody is taking them away. It seems that being green is seen as negative and a removal of the 'right' to drive what you like, live how you want and consume as much as you want. That is so engrained in U.S. culture I think it will be very difficult to change and I cannot see any way of stopping the U.S. from wrecking the Copenhagen agreements just like they wrecked Kyoto.
Posted by Robo on 30 Sep 2009

Ms Rosenthal does a credible compare and contrast job. Surely, in daily life for many Western Europeans, it is easier to walk the low-carbon-walk than in the U.S. That said, most European Kyoto Protocol signatories are missing carbon reduction goals and suffering from rising vehicles-miles-traveled. Then there's Eastern Europe, but that's a discussion for another day.

This isn't to excuse the U.S.' inexcusable inaction on a national scale. Passing a federal climate law, warts and all, would be a very good thing as would contributing to the next international climate treaty. Will these things come to pass? Don't know.

Still, it's worth pointing out that the EPA is moving ahead on increasing auto fuel efficiency standards and controlling CO2 emissions as a pollutant. The DOE is spending $$ on clean tech RD & D. Some brand name corporations are leaving the Chamber of Commerce because of its hostility to climate action. Cities are passing energy efficient building codes, offering green incentives and installing smart electric power grid controls. There's a lot to be said for local action as the cradle for the infrastructure of life changes that Ms. Rosenthal identifies as necessary to becoming a greener society.
Posted by Sallan Foundation on 30 Sep 2009

I am very suspicious of this type of unscientific comparison. Europeans need less heating and cooling because of their climate. Public transport makes more sense because of high population density. Nuclear power was adopted more vigorously because of government mandates that ignored the public objections that stopped nuclear power in the U.S. Europe has fewer fossil fuel resources, making them relatively more expensive. I prefer actual data to the random observations of urban apartment dwellers.
Posted by Tom on 30 Sep 2009

The author is essentially right in that most European countries are more environmentally conscious compared to the US. By comparing carbon footprints this is exactly what we see (which of course has a lot to do with historic structures and not only with attitudes). But by praising the European lifestyle and the fact that most people reuse their bags (which seems to
be the typical example the American observer discovers when comparing the environmental friendliness of the US and Europe) the author misses the point that most European countries
still are far from sustainable in the way they use fossil fuels and other natural resources.

We are still far from major changes in our basic energy supply, Germany is still building coal fired power plants on a large scale (the largest plant is being built close to Hamburg ), we still do not have a tax on kerosine, we still do not insulate our houses properly, we still consider it normal to drive to work for 2 hours a day, chicken is still less expensive than most kinds of vegetables (which does not mean one should not eat chicken) etc. etc.

I do not plead for renouncing to our western lifestyles, if we just thought a little more about how we use precious resources and if we were just a little more willing to pay a little more money for a much better (that is renewable) energy supply most problems concerning global warming could handled. Change can only come about if we are flexible enough in our minds to want change to come about in the first place. yes and i know there is the money issue.

But why do not we give it a try at least? Precious is rarely for free.
Posted by Irene Feige on 30 Sep 2009

Tom, I'm not quite sure you come clear with what you mean. It stated in the article that in Europe its structure simply allows for what we might term a 'green' living standard, which is a buzzword to begin with.

I understand about the more expensive utilities, it's just been the norm to save as much as possible as opposed to being environmentally friendly, though that's the side effect. Even still, in a country as small as germany there were 66.2 billion passenger kilometers (41,044,000,000 passenger miles) on long distance, regional and inner-city public transit in the first half of 2009 alone whereas the full tally for the same modes in 2008 in the U.S. is around 1,365,000,000.

You can check that for the U.S. here: for germany that was reported in the newspaper Die Welt on Wed. 16 September 2009 in an article entitled (in German) 'Deutsche nutzen Busse und Bahnen deutlich mehr', loosely translated, 'Germans are using buses and trains noticeably more,' this in reference to the same time period 2008. Yes it's easy to say higher densities make mass transit more relevant, but there were obvious decisions made that reflect how relevant these modes are in (for example) germany today.

Hamburg has a 9% modal share for cyclists and bremen has a 22% modal share. münster is even higher. it's not just about public transit, these are conscious decisions to move the modal share away from the automobile, even as germany has the second highest rate of car ownership per capita in the world, right behind the U.S.

Then your comment about nuclear power is a slightly off, considering there's a nuclear power plant 40 miles out of NYC that, should any of the many tiny fault lines it lies on go, would have a disastrous affect. Nuclear power certainly exists in the U.S. despite whatever efforts you might be citing.
Posted by kevincent on 30 Sep 2009

Nice post. Many of the posts miss the point that it isn't an accident that Europe has higher densities: it is planning. The Netherlands could look like New Jersey, but it doesn't because the Dutch chose a different path (remember: most urbanization took at the same time in Europe and in the USA).

To Dave C: While Europe could move more goods by rail then they do (they move around 17%). There are two things to note. First, much of the non-road transportation (about 30%) is by sea (makes sense given geography). More importantly, Europeans move much less freight per capita - maybe two thirds of what we move. And what are we moving? Nope, not computers and food and furniture. We are moving coal. Almost all of it by rail (and about half of the rail freight we move). So Europe moves less freight by rail because they move less coal. They move move less coal because they use less energy (and get less of the energy they do use from coal).
Posted by Graham Katz on 30 Sep 2009

Tom, what makes you think Europe needs less heating and cooling than the U.S.? Europe is big, it stretches over a large area which includes cold countries in the north and in the south those that have summer temps around 40C. In the middle we still get -10C in winter and have to use heating. In the summer we can get to the high 30s C but don’t have air conditioning running 24 hours a day.

Look at some Scandinavian countries to see how they manage cold and to Spain and Greece to see how they manage extreme heat. As I said, the differences are cultural not physical. To say that Europe has an advantage is just another excuse and more denial of the problems.
Posted by Robo on 01 Oct 2009

It certainly would be valuable for someone to do a quantitative companion piece to Elisabeth Rosenthal's fascinating set of observations of comparative behavior in Europe and the U.S. Perhaps build up energy use histograms for typical individuals in different European countries and in different regions of the U.S. as David MacKay does for the typical U.K. resident in his splendid "Sustainability-with the hot air" and let the numbers speak for themselves?

I think it is also critical that we stay non-judgmental about past behavior of Americans and Europeans (and everyone else around the globe) and focus on rapidly adopting the best social and technical innovations from around the world so we can maximize global quality of life while lessening the risk of catastrophe from greenhouse gas emissions. We need all the civility we can muster if we are to have a hope of controlling climate change.
Posted by Rick Row on 02 Oct 2009

Your story about Zurich, Switzerland carries a MAJOR omission relating to why people produce so little garbage is Switzerland, and this applies to all of Switzerland, not just Old Zurich - and that is that for at least 10 years in Switzerland garbage bags are heavily taxed (and you are only allowed to use these taxed-bags to throw your garbage out). That means that each garbage bag carries a tax of anywhere from 50 cents to several dollars. That really makes you learn quickly how to produce less garbage! Now that is costs so much to throw things out, you naturally want to buy things with less packaging, or you leave the packaging at the stores (it is common to see consumers unpack their items after purchase and leave excess packaging at stores in Switzerland), which encourages manufacturers to produce products with less packaging, so the whole systems was forced to adapt. And don’t think about not using these taxed garbage bags – Switzerland had garbage police that go after offenders! Really! Sounds very 1984, but it works! – you really learn to use less and dispose less and are much friendlier to the environment.

As you described, you are only allowed to throw out certain things in the regular trash. Each year every resident gets a long list of how to dispose of various categories of trash (ex: cardboard, bottles divided up by color, plastic bottles newspapers, electronics, cans, etc.) and a list of acceptable places and times to dispose of them. So in the end, what ends up in your regular trash can is much, much less than in, say, the US.

Posted by LAR on 04 Oct 2009

Why doesn't the author or any commentator mention that the U.S. military is the greatest user of oil in the world and the greatest polluter, including CO2, SO2, PCBs, depleted uranium, and everything else?

Although almost all European nations are complicit with U.S. military operations, the subject deserves more than mention--extensive discussion.
Posted by Joan Roelofs on 05 Oct 2009


Another reason why we dont transport so much coal by rail, there are built up a lot of power stations very near to open cast mining areas of coal, so the coal is transported by conveyors direct to the power stations. A lot of power stations are built at rivers and the coal comes per ship.
Posted by jogi54 on 07 Oct 2009

America has been such a young bountiful country, we've just finished clearing the planes of those annoying buffaloes. We were one of the few countries geared up for an industrial surge immediately after WWII.

These observations are meant to illustrate the thought that America is lagging on the evolutionary scale, just starting to realize that resources may be limited, something Europe has has a couple of centuries more to realize.
Posted by Jake Brumble on 08 Oct 2009

Good observations and reporting. For one delicious moment I felt I was there in the dolce vita. Alas, I'm here instead. I have never had a corner store that sold fresh local foods. I have to drive a long car route for this. I need room in my house to stock food because the roads take a while to plow in the winter. I need room to stock other things because what's available locally is poor quality to the point of being nearly useless. And I fear that it might be toxic. And I need room to store equipment to prepare good meals and make other quality stuff and to deal with power outages. And I need a large yard to grow most of my own produce and eggs.

I wish so much that I had neighbors who could supply quality food and goods. It is mostly buy the cheapest stuff you can, make it look pretty, and sell it for as much as you can get. That's who we've become. It will be a long road back. But thanks for the delicious view of the world beyond.
Posted by Ann on 09 Oct 2009

It seems that the initial anecdote is at odds with the central thesis. If in fact the reason that Americans waste power is that their society is structured in a way that makes it more convenient to do so, then presumably once in Europe, the American would adapt (and not take the cab when public transport is readily available). I do think that Americans tend to have a sense of entitlement — I can't waste my time on public transport, I can't be bothered to hang my clothes on the line, I don't want to put on my sweater so I'll just crank up the heat — which runs across more issues than just environmental concerns.
Posted by jenny on 26 Oct 2009

Thanks for sharing your insights on European lifestyles versus American ones. It's something to think about.

As a person who moved to America as an young immigrant, I did not grow up automatically in the wealth offered by the States. I have it now, and it makes me think about where these assumptions of wealth, space, and luxury come from.

I also wonder what my future children will assume to be "normal" as they grow up, so it is interesting to see the European perspective (especially as seen by an American).
Posted by Joseph Huang on 11 Nov 2009

Great article. I'm a U.S. citizen who's spent 10 years living in Central and Eastern Europe and who's been all over the continent.

The author's central observation is that, statistically speaking, the greatest factor in influencing one's environmental impact is not "personal choice," but rather infrastructure, laws and regulations, and social pressure. Sure, there is a small class of conscious "low impact citizens" in the U.S., but these few people must try hard to fight the system. In Europe, the path of least resistance is to consume less than in the U.S., even when you compare regions in the U.S. and Europe that have similar climates.

Essentially, most of Europe has the infrastructure of, say, Boulder, Colorado. In the U.S. there are precious few places that have European-style infrastructure that naturally leads to a 50 percent (or more) drop in environmental impact.

The Europeans, too, are not exactly sustainable. But they provide an example of how consumption can be lowered dramatically (compared to the U.S.) while still retaining the same quality of life.

Posted by Rick DeLong on 13 Nov 2009

It’s all about being pragmatic and saving money.

As a European I don’t think we have a higher moral standard then the average American, I do think however that we realize better that going on like this is quite impossible.

So in order to fight the crazy traffic jams we try and improve public transport; not because we are so concerned about the environment (no worries, we are) but because we don’t want people to waste time (and thus money) sitting in their car for hours. And there is an incentive; petrol in Europe is so expensive nowadays that is it’s well worth it to use trains, trams and busses. Europeans for that matter are (still) stunned by the price Americans pay for their petrol.

In the same way, just like in Switserland, we tax garbage in the Netherlands to make people aware of the costs of removal and to make them produce less. Over 17 million people living in such a small country as the Netherlands would otherwise soon drown in their own dirt.

Carrot and stick; cleaner environment and higher prices/taxes.

Posted by Dirk Gerbrands on 13 Nov 2009

This is a good discussion. Though I agree that a large part of the difference between for example the CO2 emissions per capita is due to historical differences like the availability of space, I do believe that citizens and companies of especially nothern European countries have a greener mindset than most Americans.

In a consultancy assignment I did last year for the marketing of cabon neutral food, American supermarkets (even Wholefoods) didn't know what I was talking about, let alone did they have any plans for offering such products. On the other side of the Atlantic supermarkets in Germany, England and even France have been doing carbon labeling for years (well, some supermarkets, others were considering it).

Look at the discussion regarding GHG legislation in the USA and EU. While in the USA a sizeable part of the population denies the greenhouse effect, a vast majority of the EU (well, except Eastern Europe) has been supporting major GHG reductions for years.

One more thing: space, weather and the availability of fossil fuels should not be over-estimated: sparsely populated, freezing and gas/oil rich Norway is one of the greenest countries in the world.

Posted by Jelle (Netherlands/Costa Rica) on 25 Nov 2009

On the flip side though, America as land also absorbs more CO2 then any other country except Canada and Russia through its forests and green areas and that needs to be taken in to account in impact statements (net emissions, as supposed to total emissions.) While Europe may be greener then America (or even Canada) I still stand by my conviction that instead of emulating Europe with its many economic weaknesses, America could be greener then even Europe by switching over to modern sources of electric energy like Nuclear and Wind and developing electric vehicles and other innovations.

Posted by estetik on 06 Dec 2009

A good article, yet few replies from anyone in Sweden, so here goes. Like she said the cabs are hybrids, as are all busses in Stockholm, as are all refuse collection trucks are in Stockholm, you see, we don't just talk about it we do these things, so I suppose that is why the USA emits 36 times more CO2 per capita than the Swedes.

All our household rubbish is incinerated in CHP plants, which are across the country, and these supply more than 50% of the heat and energy to homes and industries, we don't talk, we do these things. No household rubbish is tipped on landfills, like in the USA, where they are gigantic eyesores on the landscape, yet few people are bothered, whereas we don't talk, we get things done.

Posted by George Robinson on 21 Dec 2009

In Europe it is far easier to channel your good intentions into action. And you feel far worse if you don't. If nearly everyone is carrying a plastic bag (as in New York City) you don't feel so bad. But if no one does (as in Dublin) you feel pretty irresponsible. I believe most people are pretty adaptable and that some of the necessary shifts in lifestyle are about changing habits, not giving up comfort or convenience.

Posted by estetik on 22 Dec 2009

Perhaps some of the comments have mentioned this point, but the author has not.

The principal reason why Americans spoil more than Europeans is that Americans live in car-driving-only suburbs, while Europeans tend to live in towns where they can move by foot, by bike or by public transport.

The few Americans that live like Europeans, the New Yorkers for example, emit about as much as the Europeans, as is explained by another author in these pages.

Posted by Jan Wiklund on 29 Dec 2009

Having lived in Essen and traveled through Europe some of the above observations are true while others are partly true.

My Friend in Germany lives in a 1000 Square foot flat, drives her car alot around town and to certain functions and also has a clothes Dryer while her Hotwater is produced from a tankless hot water heater which produces more then enough hot water. She also has a Dishwasher which she uses quite often, her monthly heating and Electrical Bill(combined) comes to $70
Euros in the Winter time and less in the Summer.

Germans buy Diesal Cars and many get 60-70 mpg(US Gallons) while recently there are huge efforts to produce Hydrogen and Electric Cars in Northern Europe along with building the Infrastructure.

Germans use 220 current inside their homes(more efficient), the homes on average are built at a higher quality and much more insulated, their appliances are more energy efficient on average,etc. Their Factories, stores and buildings use the latest energy efficient technology which reduces energy usuage, extensive mass transit and high speed rail but still Germany is a Car Culture also with extensive highway systems as throughout most of Europe which rivals the US highway system.

Bottom line- Germans have the latest appliances, cars, go on long vacations outside Germany and travel around the world and do use energy but they have set up a more energy efficient system including the grid, cars, recycling, factories, stores, homes, appliances using less then half the energy per GDP output or Germany has a very high GDP(in Nominal Terms Equal to the USA per Capita) with much less Consumer, Government and Corporate debt while having a high Quality of living and less energy usage.

Germany and Europe also are pushing for a total sustainable Economy/Society with Renewable Energy, Sustainable Building, Sustainable Transport, Sustainable Manufacturing,etc.
The USA is far behind Northern Europe, perhaps 20 years and for the average US Citizen Compared to the Citizens of Northern Europe the Northern European Citizens(Creditor Nations) not only have a much better Environmental record but also a high standard/better Quality of life or better quality compared to the bottom 80% of Americans(higher wages, benefits, protections,etc).

Posted by Thomas on 09 Jan 2010

It's a given that America is lacking in the area of public transportation. Due to our car culture, many people don't even think of public transportation as an option.

This is even in cities where there is a bus system. And this is on top of the additional costs for driving and parking (where $15 a day for parking is considered cheap).

I've asked a few people at work why they don't take the bus. Standard answers included: "The bus smells." and "I don't want to change my schedule around." Makes me proud! (Sarcasm.)

Of course, there are other very interconnected issues like job location and cost of purchasing housing that comes into play.

Posted by Jeremy Gross on 10 Jan 2010

In the U.S. people live in big houses and have big cars. They own big refrigerators with separate freezers. They have clothes dryers and use disposable razors.

Americans lives are consumed with things they ‘cannot live without’. Things like two story houses, perfect temperature in their houses and cars, a fridge in the house and garage, SUV’s, and the like.

America is much bigger and roomier than Europe, Europeans realize that Europe is small and that many people live there, they are constantly aware of the ways they affect the environment.

Posted by Dan on 11 Jan 2010

Much of the problem in the US is transportation infrastructure. My husband used to take the bus to work. It took anywhere from 45 minutes on a good day to 2 hours on a really bad day. During a cold snap some years ago, he took up driving the car and discovered that it took less than 10 minutes to drive to work on the freeway.

Posted by PeonInChief on 11 Feb 2010

I agree with many of the posts. It's an infrastructure thing as well as a cultural issue between Europe and America. There are just certain aspects of the problem in the US that are too big for one person to try to overcome. It would take me 2 hours to get to/from work via bus every day. I don't live by a fresh produce/meat market, by any means, so a lot of the food that I buy has more packaging than I would like, for example. There ARE ways to try to live more environmentally despite these restrictions, though. So, thanks, Elisabeth, for writing this article as a reminder to all of us that we can still do what we can.

Posted by Julia on 01 Apr 2010

Great article. I noticed the carbon footprint shrinking when I moved to Sweden. You forgot to
mention electricity production. It's hard to have a low CO2 footprint when over half of your energy comes from coal.

Posted by Andrew on 05 Apr 2010

Great article. I noticed the carbon footprint shrinking when I moved to Sweden. You forgot to mention electricity production. It's hard to have a low CO2 footprint when over half of your energy comes from coal.
Posted by Orjin Krem on 26 May 2010

Great article comparing and contrasting the two mighty powers of the world and it is equally interesting to read the responses.

However, one of the main reasons for USA to put the issue on back burner is mainly due to the academicians not providing sufficient impetus. Only recently we see this awareness growing and with the demand for such knowledge more and more institutions offering programs around this subject.

That is the only way to imbibe new ways of living and developing sustainable infrastructure.

Posted by Kris on 10 Jun 2010

The answer, as someone has alluded earlier, is quite simple:


Even your average suburb in Germany is far denser than American suburbs. Living in cities instantly lowers your carbon footprint since you give up driving - it's a complete pain and takes longer than anything else. You also get increased efficiencies of scale for all types of services.

What you need is decent incentives to get off the land, and good urban planning to deal with the influx.

And of course, _green_ planning, policies and legislation. For instance: I still cannot believe how plastic bags are used in London. They practically throw them at you. You have to ask for them NOT to put your purchases in a bag. Makes me sick. Outlaw them already.

Posted by A on 29 Jun 2010

I saw many comments saying that U.S. is less dense than Europe and that explains everything. But this is actually not true. U.S. east coast and California are dense places. Florida is denser than France. And still the way of life in Florida is typically American.

Posted by Gaspard on 10 Jul 2010

I just stumbled upon your article and I really like the nuances. Instead of the cliché's we have about Europe versus America, it shows more sides. I recognize this from my research on culture, also covering European versus American ways of thinking and behaving.

It nicely illustrates how human behavior is shaped by 2 factors: your outer context and your
inner thinking and socialization. If you want to change behavior, like we would regarding the environment, you have to work with those 2 variables.

1. Context is very compelling: if there's a highway you tend to race, if there's a small brick
road you're enticed to slow down. This is the field of engineers and urban planners, designers and industrial R&D people. They should take these factors into account. (And to do so, they have to change their inner values, norms and awareness, see underneath).

2. Culture is the second big factor. This is the inner part: your beliefs, assumptions, values and norms, everything you've embraced during your childhood, education and socialization. It's what you've heard the others say, what they do, what is considered correct behavior and what is socially rewarded. The group shares these opinions and if you want to change something about it, you need group leaders to change their ways of thinking and behaving. Then, slowly, every individual has to change their way of thinking and behaving and has to get used to the new way. People copy, coach and correct each other, like you describe in your article.

So, in order to change our ways of thinking and becoming aware, keep writing in this nuanced way on this subject! If you state it positively so readers will feel respected and stay interested, you certainly contribute to the solution and a greener, sustainable earth.

Posted by Marcella Bremer on 17 Sep 2010

We Americans have gotten used to having way too much space at our disposal. Just look around at any suburb and you'll see so much space that never gets used, whether it's in a suburban office park, shopping center, etc. The impacts on energy use are of course huge. We should put incentives in place for utilizing land more efficiently so that this waste stops because it affects all of us greatly.

Posted by James on 21 Mar 2011

Having lived in Denmark and Italy, I could see people are concerned about environment and anti nuclear. In fact both Denmark and Italy in a referendum voted against Nuclear. Germany leads in wind power followed by Spain and UK leads in Offshore Wind Farms. In Germany Solar energy is also popular followed by Spain.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 09 May 2011



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