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Why Europeans Are Kicking Our Butts When it Comes to Living Green

In Europe it is far easier to channel your good intentions into action. And you feel far worse if you don’t.
 
 
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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 far 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 Italian poshy 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.

 
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