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The Green Life: Mr. Green: What Can We Learn from Other Nations?

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January 31, 2014

Mr. Green: What Can We Learn from Other Nations?

Mr. Green is Bob SchildgenHey Mr. Green,

In your recent magazine column (Sierra, January/February 2014) you noted Americans emit about twice the rate of carbon dioxide per person per year as our friends in Italy, Japan, and the U.K. What are they doing smarter and less consumptive that we could replicate here?

Ann, in Westlake Village, California

Thank you for reading that fine excursion into the realm of truth. Mainly it’s what these furriners don’t do that lowers their CO2 emissions, since they’re not so burdened by our all-American obsession with big cars, big houses, and Big Gulps in general. Not that they’re one bit more virtuous than us. They just started out with a lot less land and natural resources, so they didn’t have the wherewithal to sprawl and splurge on the hyper-consumptive U.S. scale. For example, despite the fact that we’ve already burned through trillions of gallons of oil, we still have about 40 times more proven petroleum reserves than Italy and way more than 400 times those of Japan. So, back when us Yanks were all laughing at movies and cartoons featuring oil-drenched dudes blasted into the stratosphere by stupendous oil gushers, the furriners had to make cars with much better gas mileage and drive them less. The Italians’ gasoline-powered cars were already exceeding 35 miles per gallon when we were stuck down around 22. Hence, to have any hope of matching them, it’s obvious that we must keep up the pressure to get U.S. fuel economy up to President Obama’s target of 35.5 mpg by 2016, and then go for broke to meet his goal of 54.5 by 2025.  

Our houses make our profligate behavior look even loopier. Back in 1950, the average house was around 980 square feet. The average new home today is up around 2,400 square feet. Not exactly a recipe for reducing emissions, since a bigger place takes a whole lot more energy to heat, cool, and light up—and residential use accounts for  22 percent of our total energy consumption. And get this: because families were bigger in 1950, each individual had an average of about 290 square feet back then, whereas today each individual has a whopping 980 square feet, an amount that once housed whole family, dysfunctional or sane. Having grown up in a house of that lower size, and being considered relatively sane, I ask if we really, really need that much more room and privacy while we sit around going public on Facebook?

By contrast, the Italians have been shrinking their new homes, down about 100 square feet from the national average of 978. The Brits have similar numbers. The Japanese, surprisingly, have increased, though they’ve still got a ways to go to match our American McMansions.

These are two major differences. There are many others, ranging from less intense use of heating and air-conditioning, smaller, more efficient appliances, more efficient lighting systems, generally better public transportation, and a general willingness to do more about global warming. 

The example that continues to flip me out is with cars. Back in 1973–74, when the Arab oil embargo first knocked some sense into us about energy, the average car got only 13.9 miles per gallon. So we wisely passed laws that doubled automobile fuel economy. And yet today we’re burning about 14 billion more gallons a year than back then. The sheer increase in the number of cars and the number of miles we drive them simply overwhelms the improved efficiency. The math of auto lunacy is straightforward: By 2011, our population had increased by about 46 percent, but we drove 80 percent more cars 98 percent more miles, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Bob Schildgen  


Got a question? Ask Mr. Green!


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 --illustration by Little Friends of Printmaking

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