A most inconvenient truth…

* Love organic food, ride the bike to work and concerned about climate change? * Chances are you belong to the biggest CO2-emitters…* A German study shows that milennials like us are acutally much worse than we happen to believe *

A study from the German environmental agency („UBA“) has analysed the environmental impact of various social groups in Germany and came to interesting conclusions. The study covered the energy and CO2 emissions from certain household activities (which account roughly for 50% of the total emissions), certain population markers (like age, sex, income, etc.) and combined them into a comprehensive analysis of social groups, measuring their impact on the ecosphere in terms of energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

#1 Emissions from household activities

The average Germans‘ energy consumption is app. 13,000 KWh per person and year. The average CO2-emission is around 4,500 kg per person and year. Both figures are closely correlated, so in the following we will focus only on CO2 emissions. Those emissions, remember 4,500 kg per year, are the result of various household activities, that have been analysed separately (housing, heating, bathroom, laundry, lighting, media consumption, mobility, food, clothing, pets, etc.). The activities with the biggest CO2 impact in a household are:

  1. Heating: 28% of your CO2-emissions come from this
  2. Mobility: 25%
  3. Kitchen (refrigerator/cooking/dishwashing): 15%
  4. Food/Nutrition: 11%
  5. All other activities combined lead fill up the rest. Noteworthy in this long list of „other“ is maybe lighting. Using eco-lightbulbs is important, but your emissions from that field total just 1.8% of your total emissions. And if you are scared that your computer uses too much, well we are talking 0.2% of your CO2 emissions here.

#2 Socio-demographic factors

The socio-demography of emissions show no major surprises. Here are the main results:

  1. Emissions grow with age until you are 65 years old and then sharply drop. This ist a result of growing wealth over time and then – sharply – a redesign of your living when you retire.
  2. Emissions grow with income. The better off you are, the more CO2-emitting activities you have (a bigger flat, a bigger car, more travel, etc.)
  3. Emissions are strongly positively correlated with your education (measured in final degree); this also being a result of the income-correlation.
  4. One maybe surprising fact: your emissions are not very much correlated to where you live. From village to small town, from city to metropolis, the average emission does not deviate strongly depending on your place of living.

#3 Social milieus – here it gets interesting

Researchers have combined the above statistics into social milieus that are frequently used in sociology and that are well described by statistical properties. The main findings of this cross-scctional analysis is surprising:

The first finding is actually not very much of a puzzle. Low-income social groups have the least CO2 emissions of all social milieus that were analysed. Environmental awareness is low, bio food and clothing not much of an issue. This – according to the researchers – was an expected outcome of the study because financial restrictions unvoluntarily lead to a CO2-saving lifestyle.

It is also not much of a miracle that the upper class milieu has the highest CO2 footprint of all milieus. The „upper class“ in sociological terms is defined as 40-70 years old, high education, high income, performance orientated attitude. Those are the guys that are „proud on what they have achieved and willing to show to everybody“. As with above correlations, they do everything that is CO2 emitting.

The most surprising fact is the second largest emitting milieu, closely following the upper class and well ahead of all traditional, conservative and mainstreet milieus: it is something sociologists call critical-creative milieu. That is people who are environmeltally concerned, buy and consume regional bio food, often vegetarians; their refrigerators are highly efficient and even in winter time they use the bicycle to work or at times use car share instead of owning their own car. But this milieu does not like to abstain from the occasional trip to Lisboa or the poorly insulated old style apartment.

Environmentally concerned climate sinners“, we seem to have a name in climate science. Our efforts to save the planet are appreciated, but it is exactly the air travel and the poor insulation of a (statistically) oversized apartment that makes all the difference. A trip by plane to New York causes 4 tons of CO2, poor insulation is responsible for 4.6 tons per year. So members of this group emit multiples of their „share“ with their apartment and one flight for a Christmas shopping trip.

#4 What we can do about it

Do we have to move into a passive house, bike to work also at minus 10 degrees (global warming helps here actually) and never ever again see foreign countries? Well, actually yes. But that is not going to happen, if we try to sell responsible behaviour in this way. But the German environmental agency has three tips for us:

  • Be political: without public pressure nothing is going to happen on a larger scale. Become a member of an environment group. The more members they have, the more likely that you will be heard.
  • Compensate: 11 tons of CO2 bear a cost of 250 EUR p.a. And that is actually tax deductible in Germany. Atmosfair or myclimate are reasonable places to offset your individual CO2 emissions.
  • Tackle the biggest problems first: insulation, car sharing and taking the train (at least for shorter trips)… this will reduce your emissions by large numbers.


(1) Umweltbundesamt. Repräsentative Erhebung von Pro-Kopf-Verbräuchen natürlicher Ressourcen in Deutschland (nach Bevölkerungsgruppen). („Representative study on per-capita consumption of natural resources in Germany“). Read here

(2) DER SPIEGEL. Das können Sie persönlich gegen den Klimawandel tun. („This is what you can personally do against climate change“).  Read here

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