Europe Vs. America: Some Inconvenient Environmental Truths
How does the United States stack up to Europe when it comes to environmental matters?
February 1, 2010
No doubt, common perceptions of the United States have combined with the previous administration’s cozy relationship with the oil industry and its refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol to paint the United States as an environmental black hole.
Once again, the numbers tell a different story. Everybody knows that the United States' oil use per capita is high. But if you measure it as a function of economic production (in other words, if you put the input in relation to the output), energy consumption remains within European norms — and indeed lower than in Portugal, Greece, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Iceland.
Yes, the United States has the highest per capita rate of CO2 emissions. Everyone knows that. Between 1990 and 2002, America's carbon dioxide output rose. Few people, though, know that per unit of GDP it fell by 17% — a greater reduction than in nine western European countries.
In its output of renewable energy, the United States is in the middle of the European spectrum on all counts, whether biogas, solid biomass energy, geothermal, solar or wind.
Despite the idea that the United States is a hyper-motorized nation, its citizens own fewer passenger cars per head than many Europeans.
Even if one takes the figures for all road motor vehicles, to account for American drivers' penchant for SUVs and light trucks, the U.S. figures are lower than the Portuguese and in the same league as the Luxembourgeois, Icelanders and Italians.
Much to the contrary of what is commonly supposed, the United States even has a well-developed rail system. Americans do not, it is true, themselves travel on this extensive rail network. But the U.S. rail network transports Americans' freight.
The amount of freight sent by rail in the United States per capita is over three times the highest European rate, found in Sweden.
Ecologically speaking, there is no advantage in sending passengers by rail — if freight is sent by road. All European nations send a higher percentage of freight by road than the United States.
As a result, the number of trucks per capita is lower in the United States than anywhere in Europe — one-third, for example, of the Norwegian, French or Austrian levels. Europeans virtuously take the train. Meanwhile, it seems, their dishwashers, turnips, cornflakes and mail are being driven around on the road.
Americans produce a lot of waste per head, though the Norwegians are worse, and the Irish and Danes are close competitors. But they recycle as well as the Finns and the French, and better than the British, the Greeks and the Portuguese.
U.S. land conservation efforts are strong by European standards. The percentage of national territory protected in the United States is about double that of France, the UK or even Sweden, despite its vast Arctic parks.
Agricultural land devoted to organic farming in the United States is lower than anywhere in Europe. But conventional American farmers are far less chemicalized than their European colleagues.
Thanks partly to their use of GM crops, they use pesticides sparingly. Only Finnish, Swedish and Irish farmers spray less per square kilometer of agricultural land. The Italians use over seven times as much, the Belgians even more.
Editor’s Note: This is Part III of a five-part series adapted from THE NARCISSISM OF MINOR DIFFERENCES by Peter Baldwin, published by the Oxford University Press. Copyright 2010 Peter Baldwin. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Read Part II here.
Professor of History, University of California, Los Angeles Peter Baldwin is a professor of history at UCLA. He received his B.A. from Yale in 1978 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1986. Among his publications are “The Politics of Social Solidarity: Class Bases of the European Welfare State 1875-1975” (Cambridge, 1990), “Reworking the Past: Hitler, […]