Why Does the U.S. Have Twice As Much Emissions Compared to European Countries?

carbon footprint in US vs Europe

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

Lowering greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), particularly CO2, is now a race against time. The global COVID-19 lockdowns helped curb emissions, lessening global footprint by about 9% from 2019 to 2020. However, data suggests that emissions came back in 2021 with a vengeance. Both coal and renewable energy (from wind, solar, and hydro, respectively) were at their peak consumption levels during 2021!

Environmental experts contend that if there is no significant reduction by 2030, and societies cannot reach net zero by 2050, there will be dire consequences for all living beings worldwide.

Countries With Highest GHG Emissions

If we look at countries, who are the biggest culprits?

China and the U.S. are the top two countries creating the most emissions. Luxembourg will be far down the list, but not because of technologies supporting green practices. Country averages take into account the population size, GDP, energy sector, and more. 

Here are the top 10 countries with the highest GHG emissions in million metric tons (from 2019 data):

  1. China — 9,877
  2. United States — 4,745
  3. India — 2,310
  4. Russia — 1,640
  5. Japan — 1,056
  6. Germany — 644
  7. South Korea — 586
  8. Iran — 583
  9. Canada — 571
  10. Saudi Arabia — 495

Why look at country data? These aren't meant to pit one nation against the other. Of course, there will always be comparisons, especially among the top countries that produce the highest GHG emissions. But if it helps influence national policies to diminish emissions, all the better for our entire world. 

Warming our planet is essential for our survival - the Earth's average would be about 0°F without these greenhouse gases. But as we have seen in recent years, excess emissions have created unnatural global warming. 

Human activities like agricultural practices, transport, and fossil fuel burning bolster this unprecedented warming of the planet. It's more important than ever to rethink and rebuild production and consumption practices to reduce CO2 and other GHG footprints. One way to figure out where to start is to understand where these emissions are coming from and how to reduce them on a large scale.

Carbon Footprint Individual Averages: US vs. Europe

An interesting mode of analysis is to calculate emissions at the individual level. What the numbers say is that the U.S. does stick out, compared to, say, India, that have billions of people but many are still without electricity. 

Interestingly, the U.S. has higher averages than fellow wealthy countries in Europe (pre-Brexit). According to the analysis conducted by UC Berkeley, as told in Ars Technica, Americans have almost double the ballpark of the average European. Some experts argue that the population density is the main factor. But even the most efficient cities in the U.S. still have significantly higher GHG emissions compared to European national averages.

Is it the country's size? Or are there glaring lifestyle differences? 

U.S. vs. Europe: Top Three Differences in Carbon Footprint 

Using an econometric model of applying demographic information alongside economy-scale categories, here are three main differences why the U.S. has a higher emission rate than European counterparts.

1.  Housing Styles

Analysis showed that the average household footprint is below 50 tons of CO2, and in dense, urban city centers the average could even drop to 30 tons - closer to the average of an EU country like Germany. But the household emissions become higher in suburban areas in the U.S. - as much as 80 tons on average. 


carbon footprint in US higher than Europe

Photo by Pixabay

There's an assumption that it could be due to colder winters and hotter summers. Americans do have more cooling degree days than Europe - but it's balanced out as Europe has more heating degree days. These cooling and heating degree days are calculated according to the number of days the thermostat adjusts to the outside temperatures.

It's not so much as residential energy use, but housing and urban planning as the differentiator. Americans have single-family detached homes, and these properties tend to be bigger than European counterparts. The median size in the U.S. is 1,600 square feet (150 square meters) compared to just about half of European homes.

2.  Diet

Food contributes a large portion of an individual's average emission rate. And in the U.S., there is markedly more meat, sugar, and added sweeteners in the regular diet than in Europeans. While cultural patterns still apply (e.g. Mediterranean diet is distinct from diet in the U.K), there is still a significant increase in beef consumption by Americans.

Aside from preference, researchers note that beef and poultry enjoy lower prices in the U.S. relative to the price of other food options. Beef and poultry consumption is generally higher in the U.S. than in the EU. The average American diet is around 20% higher than the French, and 60% higher than the Germans, even though both European nations consume meat and dairy.

As what we’ve previously discussed in this article, agri-livestock is a major contributor to GHG emissions. As high as 12-18% of global emissions come from the industry. Raising beef and other livestock requires huge carbon, water, and land footprint, so the higher the beef consumption, the higher GHG emissions.


3.  Transport

This is by far the most significant difference in why the U.S. produces more GHGs than its European counterparts. 

One of the primary reasons is that Americans own more vehicles than Europeans. There are around 800 of them for every 1,000 individuals, as opposed to the average of 500 for France, the UK, and Germany, respectively.

Moreover, American cars are less fuel-efficient. You can travel only about 25 miles per gallon (or 11 kilometers per liter). European cars are much more efficient, with around 45 miles per gallon of fuel (or 19 kilometers per liter). 

Aside from having less efficient vehicles, Americans tend to drive more. The average is over 11,000 miles per year (18,000 kilometers), much higher than Europeans who travel by car at an average of 7,500 miles per year (12,000 kilometers).

Other considerations include Americans' preference for larger vehicles, such as SUVs and crossovers, and Europeans using more diesel engines than American car owners. 

Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The Takeaway

It’s a fact that the U.S., apart from China, emits more GHGs than the rest of the world. Fellow European countries have about half of the American averages, even at the individual level—these three main areas of consumption highlight some cultural and lifestyle differences. 

What’s optimistic about these findings is that you can engage in certain decisions that can lessen your individual footprint. While going solo is NOT the solution to climate change, it helps reduce your own contribution. If millions of individuals do so, it could reshape consumer products in order to have a lower impact from production to disposal.

Curbing emissions is something that can work alongside the larger, more crucial fights, which involve system-level policy changes that can effect top-down results.  

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