Guest Post by Elisabeth Rosenthal This post originally appeared in Yale Environment 360

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.

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 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 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.

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.

© 2009, Yale Environment 360. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Yale Environment 360 (30 Articles)

This post originally appeared on Yale Environment 360. Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. The site features original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. It is funded in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

  • Ana Suzina

    Hi Elisabeth. I liked very much the discussion you brougth to us. I agree that our environment orients a lot the way we live, but I think it can only justify the past.
    I live in Brazil where it’s commom to face arguments that justify the growing number of cars in the streets as a good sign of the development that has arrived. There are people who think that, as many Brazilians could not afford a car or other things in the recent past, it’s fair that they can do it now. I disagree.
    Now, that all of us have enough information about the impact of our way of life, people can change, adapt, choose better. More than “can”, people must do it.
    And Americans have great universities, information systems, access to communication, etc. We all are responsible for the world we’ll have in the future, but it would be really nice to see the great America taking a sustainable leadership.

  • Benoit

    Wonders never end

    I agree with Peter, it is indeed a very interesting article. I also enjoyed the comment of Ana from Brazil.

    Oh yes, it is easier to live green in Europe. For example, I go skiing every weekend in train. You still have to learn and have the (minimal) courage to carry your stuff when you get there, but yes, it can be done and trains and buses get you everywhere. Better, you can get a huge discount on your ski tickets, and use the gondola to get up to the village much faster than with the bus (5 minutes instead of 25, I bet cars easy that way). I am also a member of Mobiilty car sharing, one of the almost 100’000 members in Switzerland. No, I don’t own a car and don’t want a car.

    Yet, the reason Switzerland kept its public transports of the XIX century, trains, is because no canton or commune would agree for any dismantling (in France it was ordered by Paris). Another reason is probably that Switzerland can afford it. Even in Switzerland with arguably the best public transports in the world, only 25% of trips are done by train, against 75% by car. While this proportion is now improving, you are better to be dam good to change habits! I also travelled in South America and buses there go everywhere, really everywhere… for those that can afford them. So clearly, the geography helps, but it is not the only factor.

    I am a Canadian living in Geneva, Switzerland, for the last 18 years and I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on the internal movement for traffic calming in cities, probably the spiniest topic you can choose. I studied the arguments of the cyclist’s movement, the ones coming from the new urbanism, for car sharing and of course in favor of public transports. I have a hundred arguments to explain why we should all use a bicycle to get to work, especially since the electric bike makes it possible for a much wider range of professions. It is becoming almost easy, even for a 15 kilometers ride. Yet, things can be complicated. To cross the threshold where people start perceiving the bicycle as something for “normal” people, you have to reach a certain proportion of trips, around 15% for example. And to get these numbers, like 40% in Copenhagen, you need campaigns, education, etc. Ever wondered why Denmark and Germany reach those level and France is at 1%?

    When I was a kid, the Québec government was telling us we were the greenest of all as we owed hydro-québec and hydro electricity was the greenest. Yet, today big dams are heavily contested, to the point you cannot get carbon credits for big ones. There is even an NGO against big dams, based in Switzerland. Wind became the new green, yet it is also contested by some that don’t want them in their backyard. What is next? Geothermal maybe… Just put it under the ground, I don’t want the hear it, see it, smell it! Hey, take it easy, why not get new modern super efficient lighting systems, like LEDs, I mean like the good ones the Chinese put on for the Olympics… imported from the US! And I pass on the time some presented bio-fuels as the easy solution to replace petroleum…

    Regarding Ana’s comment, on The Green Economy Post. Ok cars are a sign of wealth. Yet, in Brazil the most modern city in my view is Curitiba, and I think many Brazilian envy the quality of life in town. Why? Because it invented the fast transit bus systems with reserved lines that have inspired numerous projects are the world, including one I studied in Quito (recently Bogota even got carbon credits for its imitation of Curitiba). The main reason why Curibiba is so green in my view, is because it is really cheap to build. You can bring efficient public transports, with a modern look to it, to much more people than by building trams that are 20 times more expensive, or even worst, by building super expensive metros that send people under ground, for the rest of their life in some cases… (I used the metro in Montreal for years, thanks god someone invented the bicycle, even in the snow!).

    Hey, I am not saying we should give up on this discussion. It is easier to live green in Europe, yet being small does not always mean being green. There are numerous other factors involved and no matter what, we will have to sequester carbon to bring back levels to what scientist tell us. As I am not too existed about fossil fuel CCS, I invite to consider biochar, a solution inspired by Amerindians living in the Amazon, five hundred years ago… As an American friend that traveled on a recumbent bicycle all across Europe like to say, “wonders never end”.

  • Samir

    Great article! Having lived in Europe AND in India, I see exactly what you are talking about. Europe, India, and all these other old countries were built a long time ago — and they were built conservatively.

    USA, on the other hand, has been built AROUND automobiles, trucks, transportation, etc. The same can be said of China.

  • sacha davilak

    I happily disagree the being green has been limited to one side of the political divide.

    The spirited political discussions right here at CLEANMPG are a good example that efficiency, conservation, and awareness are alive and well on both sides of the political spectrum.

    In fact, conservation is one of the few areas that even the extremists on both sides meet. You could have an ultra conservative rancher working hand-in-hand with a left fringe liberal jointly opposing a project to take land and put up a shopping mall or the like.
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