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