What Makes Europe Greener than the U.S.?

That’s the headline over a wonderful story Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote for e360, the webzine published by Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Rosenthal, who covers environmental issues for The New York Times, explains that CO2 emissions in the U.S. are 19.8 tons per capita while in the U.K. they are 9.6 tons and 6.6 tons in France. What’s the secret for Europeans’ vastly smaller footprint?

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.

Rosenthal explains how a few lifestyle changes that might seem inconvenient or impossible for Americans would not only make a big difference in our footprint but would be surprisingly easy to adapt to. Worthwhile reading…

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.