Windmills, Tides, and Solar Besides: The European Way of Energy, Transportation, and Low Carbon Emissions
by Steven Hill, Environmental Law Reporter, February 2013
Europe leads and the U.S. lags in one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century — ecological sustainability.
Picture windmills, tidal turbines, and solar panels on rooftops, dotting the picturesque landscape. Imagine large cylindrical “sea snakes” bobbing in the ocean, generating enough electricity from ocean waves to power isolated coastal villages. Or undersea “windmills” ceaselessly churning in the currents, harnessing the allure of seemingly limitless energy from the ocean. And vast solar arrays with tens of thousands of panels that have tracking technology to follow the sun, and “smart” energy-efficient buildings that monitor the temperature and sunlight to open and close the blinds and window panels automatically. Imagine harnessing the body warmth of 250,000 daily commuters to produce heat for a nearby office block. Or car-free city centers populated with throngs of bicyclists and pedestrians, and city buses running on hydrogen fuel cells, with high-speed trains circling it all, linking major cities, whisking passengers in comfort and carbon-friendly efficiency.
While these may sound like science fiction, all of these innovations and more are becoming reality on the European continent. Perhaps no single horizon better illustrates Europe’s technological advances, combined with political will and future-thinking, than its leadership in launching the world into a new era of renewable energy, conservation, and low greenhouse gas (GHG) economies. Even in the midst of a global economic crisis and eurozone challenges, Europe continues to press forward and to push the United States, China, and other nations to live up to their climate responsibilities, both via example as well as through European influence in global markets and various international institutions. With the world facing energy shortages, unstable prices, geopolitical struggles over energy supply, and dramatic climate changes that demand less fossil fuel consumption and reduced carbon emissions, Europeans have embarked on changes in their energy regime that over the course of the next half century will have as profound an effect on society as coal and steam power did in the 19th century.
Over the last decade while both the Obama and Bush Administrations have remained climatically flat-footed and engaged in increasingly desperate searches for oil and natural gas, Europe has stepped quietly into the role of global trailblazer. In March 2007, the heads of all 27 European Union (EU) nations met and, led by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has emerged as a world leader of the first magnitude, agreed to cut carbon emissions by 20% and to make renewable energy sources 20% of the EU’s energy mix by 2020 (up from a 6.5% share, which was already twice that of the United States). Displaying an important principle that will be crucial to any global climate agreement, the richest European nations agreed to contribute a greater share than their lesser-off European colleagues toward combating GHGs and climate change. Considering that the EU has the largest economy in the world, this climate protection agreement—known as the 20-20-20 Plan—has the potential to be epochal in its impact.
Meanwhile, the United States has become not only the largest per capita polluter in the world, but under both the Obama and Bush Administrations a rogue nation that refuses to rein in its extravagant ways. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the United States leads in consuming 25% of the world’s oil and in belching nearly 50% of GHGs emitted by automobiles. The average American emits twice the carbon and uses twice the electricity of the average European, and each American generates about 45,000 pounds of carbon dioxide(CO2) a year, twice as much as the average European or Japanese and many times more than someone living in China, India, or any other developing country. Our large, hulking automobiles are champion gas guzzlers, with engines about twice as large as those of cars in any other nation. Our inefficient toilets flush away more cubic inches of water, and our old-style incandescent lightbulbs, still in widespread use, burn up more kilowatts.
Not only does our environmental greed hurt the world, it also impacts Americans’ health negatively. A study by researchers at Columbia and Yale universities, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, ranked the United States 97th out of 133 nations in air quality (behind nearly all of Europe, including Poland, Bulgaria, and even Russia), 96th in water quality (behind all of Europe except Romania, and just ahead of Cuba), and 80th in sustainable energy (right behind Turkey and just ahead of Panama). Our ecological “footprint,” the measure of the earth’s capacity consumed by a population, is twice that of Europe even though we have the same standard of living. While wracking up a far better environmental and carbon emissions record than the United States, Europe has created hundreds of thousands of new green jobs. As one European acquaintance observed, “You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to realize that the world cannot afford too many countries that consume so many times their fair share.”
The settled scientific and political consensus now is that the 21st century will be a make-or-break one for the human stewardship of planet Earth. Candidate Barack Obama in 2008 pledged to turn the page on the sorry years of failed leadership by both Republican and Democratic parties, but under his Administration the United States has not come close to matching European or Japanese achievements. As just one example, when President Obama announced in May 2009 new nationwide rules for mileage standards, he set a goal that the U.S. motor vehicle fleet should reach an average of 35.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2016. But Europe and Japan already have long surpassed this standard and even China has pledged to reach it sooner than that. Then in August 2012 the Obama Administration finalized standards to increase fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025, but the fuel standard of European vehicles is already at 50 miles per gallon, with Japan averaging 45 miles per gallon. America is the constant underachiever.
The Unites States made a major stride recently by reducing the nation’s generation of power from coal from 45% to 35% of all U.S. electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Unfortunately that has been achieved by switching from coal to natural gas, which increased from 21% to 29% of power generation. While natural gas is a much cleaner fossil fuel than coal in terms of emitting less carbon, it emits far more methane, which also is a GHG. Researchers have found that methane is a more potent and therefore dangerous GHG than carbon. In addition, the method for extracting methane known as “fracking” is hugely controversial because of the havoc it creates in the local environment, including byproducts such as toxic wastewater, contaminated drinking water, and even earthquakes.
It’s going to take a more serious and sustained effort for the United States to close the gap with Europe and other developed nations. Because the United States is the world’s greatest per capita polluter, the whole world is hoping that President Obama succeeds. If ever global leadership was needed, that time is now. And that leadership is being provided, not by the United States but by “old Europe.”
I. Energy Productivity: Getting More Energy for Less Fuel
On the European continent, a revolutionary evolution in energy efficiency, conservation, and transportation has been quietly occurring. For centuries, the land of the Enlightenment has produced brilliant inventors, scientists, writers, artists, musicians, composers, entrepreneurs, and political leaders. Today, this tradition of inventiveness and ingenuity is in evidence all across the European continent today in small and grand ways, particularly in matters of energy efficiency and conservation.
I am never less than impressed by the two- and three-button flush toilets, with one button releasing a low flush that uses little water, and the other buttons for larger flushes if needed. (No, these are not the old European toilets with the little shelf that gives you a bird’s-eye view of your last meal; this is a new generation of toilets that allow you to use only precisely as much water as you need to complete your business.) In an Italian seacoast village, my shower had a small, nearly soundless ventilating fan driven not by electricity but by sea breezes, easily turned on or off by a simple string-pulley system. And I’m always delighted by Germany’s ingeniously designed, energy-efficient “tilt and turn” windows that, simply by turning the latch a different direction, can either swing wide open horizontally like a French door, or tilt back vertically on the bottom hinge, allowing you to adjust precisely for cool air or precipitation.
Many public buildings have escalators tripped by motion sensors, saving energy when no one is in the stairwell. Likewise, in Brussels’ Gare-Midi train station, a huge glass turnstile is powered by motion sensors, revolving when someone enters it but otherwise is switched off, saving electricity. All of the hotels, buildings, and homes are illuminated by low-wattage CFL bulbs, which also are tripped on and off by motion sensors. When I visited the natural history museum in Umeå, Sweden, I noticed that the lights were tripped by motion sensors so that when no one was in a particular room of the museum, the light was very dim (though not completely dark). When someone walked into that room, the overhead lights snapped on. Very efficient. (This efficiency, however, is not without its occasional downsides. Once, after getting stranded in an old grand hotel in the Swiss Alps because the snowy mountain roads had been closed, I used its public bathroom with motion-activated lights. After I had been sitting in the toilet stall for a bit, suddenly the lights blinked off, leaving me sitting in the pitch dark!)
Those are the little things. Then you start noticing some of the bigger things, new or improved technologies that produce renewable energy or greater energy conservation with minimal carbon emissions and impact on the environment. These are the ones that really stand out, and they are starting to make a difference.
Take wind power: Europe leads the world in the production of wind power, and Germany leads Europe. All across rural Germany, giant windmills line the landscape, rows of them standing massively tall like a new-fangled crop, blades turning with a slow, steady patience. In the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, its 26,000 wind turbines are capable of filling one-third of its electricity needs. Across Germany more than 20,000 windmills generate 8% of the country’s electricity, some 21,000 megawatts (MW) of power—45% of Europe’s total wind power—enough to power 10 million homes and save an estimated 42 million tons of CO2. Germany has plans to build an additional 30 offshore wind farms, with some 2,000 windmills in the North and Baltic seas providing 11,000 more MW of electricity.
But that’s just the beginning. In Britain, a joint venture of several European power companies is constructing the world’s largest wind farm 12 miles off the coast, near where the Thames River flows into the North Sea. The numbers are staggering: the ambitious $2.7 billion project will consist of 341 turbines occupying an area of 90 square miles and will add 1,000 MW of capacity. Combined with the output from a second wind farm being built off the coast nearby, the 440 turbines all told will produce enough to power a third of London’s three million households. And it’s all renewable energy, no belching CO2 or toxic emissions, resulting in a decrease of over two million tons of CO2 emissions every year.
The world’s fastest-growing producer of wind power has been Spain, where wind power accounts for almost 16% of the country’s electricity consumption. On a windy weekend in March 2008, wind power in Spain produced an average of 28% of all electricity consumed nationwide and over 40% during peak moments. Portugal is building $1.3 billion worth of wind turbines around the country, enough to power 750,000 homes. The Swedish power company Vattenhall is building northern Europe’s biggest wind turbine park in the Baltic Sea, between Sweden and Germany. Denmark already gets about 20% of its total power from wind energy, led by the existing largest wind installation in the world at Nysted, where 72 turbines generate enough power for 110,000 households.
These are starting to add up to serious numbers in terms of the amount of power produced. Wind power has taken off in recent years in all corners of Europe and is becoming a major business with enough MWs installed in recent years to power millions of homes. The EU surpassed some 100,000 MW of wind capacity in September 2012, enough generating capacity to meet the total consumption of 57 million households and the equivalent to the power production of 39 nuclear power plants or burning 72 million tons of coal annually in coal-fired power plants. The growth of wind power has accelerated rapidly in recent years; while it took the European wind energy sector 20 years to install its first 10 gigawatts, it only needed 13 years to add an additional 90 gigawatts. Meanwhile the United States and China lag far behind, surpassing 50,000 MW of wind power capacity in August 2012, only half of Europe’s wind power capacity.
Another renewable energy technology enjoying a surge is solar power. Once again, Europe is leading the world, and Germany is leading Europe. In the heart of conservative Bavaria, a 30-acre solar facility went online a few years ago, becoming the largest solar energy park in the world at the time. This park, combined with two other nearby solar parks, which together are composed of an array of 57,600 silicon and aluminum panels, generate enough electricity to power over nine thousand German homes. Germany became the world leader in solar installations in 2005, surpassing the former leader, Japan, with nearly 10,000 MW of installed solar energy, almost as much as the rest of the world combined. That’s enough to power almost six million homes, practically the same capacity as Britain’s entire nuclear power industry. While the United States has nearly four times Germany’s population, it only has 17% of Germany’s solar capacity, with China having even less solar capacity than the United States.
But Germany is not the only European country soaking up the sun. Photovoltaic capacity in the EU has been growing at a stunning annual rate of 70%. Spain has been on a rampage to install solar power and now has the world’s second highest amount of installed solar energy, at 3,386 MW. Portugal, which is blessed with a lot of sun, has built the world’s largest solar photovoltaic power plant, an 11-megawatt station composed of 52,000 photovoltaic modules. It produces enough electricity to light and heat 8,000 homes and saves more than 30,000 tons a year of CO2 emissions. Solar water heating, a modern version of an old technology, is enjoying a resurgence, using passive solar panels not to generate electricity but to heat pipes of circulating water for hot showers, dishwashing and laundry, reducing water heating bills by 75%. In Europe, 13% of hot water generation is produced by solar thermal, compared with just 2% in the United States. Tiny Austria installed 40 times more such systems in 2005 than California did, although it has a quarter of California’s population and a lot less sun. The solar plant in Portugal also is bringing jobs and development to the traditionally poor Alentejo region, 125 miles southeast of the capital, Lisbon. Ironically, Portugal’s partners are American companies, PowerLight Corporation and GE Energy Financial Services, which transact more business in Europe than in the United States.
Solar power and wind power have proliferated as a result of several factors, the most important of which are technological advances and visionary government support. First, technological advances have made modern windmills far superior to the picturesque old Dutch wooden windmills on postcards, or even to the more premodern kind that dot California’s Altamont Pass. The quaint windmills of old have been replaced by turbines that stand as high as 20-story buildings. These more powerful turbines can generate up to seven times more energy than the first modern models produced, helped by features such as longer blades and pivoting rotors that, at the direction of a computer chip, tilt and turn the blades to harness the wind optimally. Even when the wind is relatively weak, they are able to harness enough to generate power, and that helps to lower the cost per kilowatt hour (kWh). Solar power today also utilizes tracking technology that enables the panels to follow the sun, resulting in significantly more electricity production than is possible with fixed ground-mount systems.
Second, conscious, clear-eyed government policies have boosted the proliferation of wind and solar power technologies by offering financial incentives. In Germany wind power has benefited from a 2001 law that enacted a “feed-in tariff” which required energy companies to pay wind power producers a price three times greater than the amount paid for power produced from conventional sources. The feed-in tariff fostered a market that made wind-generated power commercially viable without any government subsidies. That incentive was so successful that Germany also enacted legislation in 2004 guaranteeing producers of solar electricity a price that is four times the market rate for conventionally generated power. Guaranteeing operators a premium fixed price for every kW produced has created a fertile business climate for renewable technologies to take off. As the industry has reached economies of scale, the cost per energy unit has declined, so these technologies have become closer to competitive with other fuel sources. The German government also has provided research grants and spurred demand by establishing a “100,000 rooftops program,” which provided low-interest credits for home buyers of solar systems. Other countries, such as Britain, Denmark, Portugal, and Spain, have followed suit. Not surprisingly, wind and solar are two of the fastest growing markets in Europe.
In addition to the impressive energy benefits, the wind and solar industries also are creating thousands of jobs, most of them in rural areas, where job creation can be difficult. Germany’s economy and exports have received a huge boost as a result of massive investment in the renewable energy sector. Thousands of people in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, and over 84,000 nationwide, have found employment within the wind industry. Germany’s entire renewable industry, including wind, solar, and biomass power, shot up to 249,300 new jobs in 2007, a 50% jump over 2004. On a per capita basis, that is comparable to the creation of a million jobs in the United States. These industries have expanded Germany’s exports, with German wind turbine manufacturers producing many of the turbines and components manufactured worldwide, which has built the wind business into a $6 billion industry. A study by the German government predicts that by 2020, 400,000 domestic jobs will exist in the renewable energy sector.
In Spain, renewable energy provides jobs for tens of thousands of people, and prior to the eurozone crisis the production of renewable energy had increased by 50%. Despite the current economic downturn, other European nations are still enjoying surges in economic activity from the business of wind, solar, and other renewables, as these industries become deeply rooted in European soil.
Europe has long led the world in marshaling power from the sea. The world’s first tidal station was the Rance Estuary dam, built in Brittany, France, in 1966, which harnesses an exceptional tide differential with a range of 27 feet to produce 240 MW of power for 100,000 homes. But modern technology is allowing the futuristic promise of tidal energy to step up to a new level. Ireland and Britain are pushing forward with a new tidal machine that has created a stir of excitement. Imagine taking a windmill and sinking it into the ocean—that, in effect, is what engineers have done in a bay in Northern Ireland and in the Bristol Channel, south of Wales. Beneath the sea surface, 35-foot-long turbines turn 17.5 times a minute, generating renewable energy from the water’s current. Above the surface, only a white and red-striped tower is visible. Since its installation in 2008, the tidal current turbine in Northern Ireland has fed more than six gigawatt hours of electrical power into the grid, enough to power two coastal villages with over 10,000 people. Just as dozens of windmills can be deployed in a field to create a wind farm, these underwater “seamills” create the possibility of grids of undersea turbines producing hundreds of megawatts of carbon-free power—an energy sea farm. .
Europe is employing a whole array of these energy technologies and more. In Portugal and Scotland, they have deployed “sea snakes” or “energy eels,” which are 400-foot-long, floating cylinders that bob semi-submerged in the waves and convert wave motion to electricity. Italy, Iceland, Switzerland, Germany, and Portugal are developing geothermal energy, which makes use of the earth’s interior heat to produce steam that rotates turbines. Italy has 95% of the EU’s installed capacity, and volcanic Iceland produces over 50% of its electricity from geothermal sources. Finland, Britain, and Sweden are developing biomass energy, which generates electricity from the combustion of forestry and agricultural by-products. Slovenia and Poland are developing small-scale hydropower. Denmark already generates more than 25% of its energy from sustainable sources and, by combining those with extensive conservation methods, has reached a point that it produces 55% more power than it needs, making it an exporter of energy. Some have even tried to repopularize nuclear energy, particularly France, which obtains 77% of its electricity from nuclear power and claims this source is “clean” in that it doesn’t produce carbon emissions. But the millennium-lasting radioactive waste continues to make nuclear power a controversial option and one opposed by most European countries.
The EU is getting closer to its 2020 targets, generating 12.4% of its energy needs from renewable technologies. Some individual member states have already reached their targets, with Sweden generating 48% of its energy from renewables, and Finland, Austria, and Latvia generating 30% renewable energy and others states above 20%. The United States, meanwhile, generates less than half that amount of its energy from renewables, with some estimates placing the amount as low as 2.7%. Since the United States is by far the world’s largest per capita polluter of carbon and other pollutants, clearly Americans are not doing enough to hold up their end.
In this age of oil uncertainty and unstable energy prices, and with the urgency of Europe’s governments to meet their goals for sustainable energy and GHG reductions, Europeans are experimenting with all sorts of renewable energy and transportation options that previously had limited appeal. Each country is deploying different technologies and acting as a laboratory for the others, plotting a meandering course toward the future. But unlike in previous episodes of experimentation, this time there is a surge of momentum and resoluteness at the highest official levels. Motivated by the increasingly urgent crisis of global climate change, previously futuristic ideas now are seen to be within reach scientifically as well as economically. Some countries have set ambitious goals, such as Sweden’s goal of generating 60% of its electricity from renewables, Austria’s goal of 78%, Portugal’s of 45%, Finland’s of 31%, and Spain’s and Denmark’s of 29%.
Of course, such pronouncements and proclamations would be hot air without the funding to back them up. But substantial capital investments are being made, not only by governments but also by venture capitalists, major banks, financial institutions and blue chip technology companies. At a national energy summit convened by Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany’s energy industry pledged to invest $50 billion in new renewable energy infrastructure, $20 billion in the solar industry alone. On a per capita basis, that would be equivalent to the United States investing $180 billion, nearly $30 billion per year, in renewable energy, an unprecedented sum. Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Sweden and other states have invested billions of euros more to develop renewable power. Some of the boldest plans have been slowed somewhat by the impacts of the current economic climate, but progress is still being made and the commitment remains firm.
The outline of a low carbon economy is emerging, with Europe at the forefront. “Renewable energy is the source of energy for the future,” says Manuel Pinho, Portugal’s former economics minister. “We think this can create an industrial revolution and a lot of opportunities for jobs and research, and we want to be ahead of the curve.” That’s how Europe is viewing this—as an opportunity, a new industrial revolution. And it is at the lead of this revolution.
II. Energy Conservation and Productivity: “The Greatest Renewable of All”
With all the talk of energy eels, wave dragons, solar arrays, undersea windmills, and even a newly developed $13,000 compact car that allegedly gets 157 miles per gallon, Europe starts sounding like a renewable energy Disneyworld. But the fact is, while the amount of power provided by all these impressive new technologies is growing exponentially, it’s still a small proportion of the overall power supply. And it is likely to remain so for another decade or two. So in both the short and medium terms, ways must be found to deal with an economy that will continue to be based primarily on the use of fossil fuels that belch significant amounts of GHGs and cause global warming and its ominous side effects.
On this point, virtually all the experts agree: in the short term, the cheapest, easiest, and fastest way to reduce carbon emissions and tackle many of the world’s energy shortages is through energy conservation. But this conservation requires more than just using less energy; it requires a more efficient use of energy and getting greater results from the same quantity of energy used—what is called “energy productivity.” Increasing energy productivity makes it possible to reduce the amount of energy used and put less CO2 into the atmosphere without compromising our standard of living. That’s why energy experts say energy productivity is the biggest “renewable” of all. Even the oil insiders know this. Sadad al-Husseini, who oversaw one-quarter of the world’s oil reserves as a former executive at the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Aramco (which is owned by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia), says, “The best alternative energy is energy efficiency. There is too much wastage. There are too many cars that are far bigger than what they need to be. . . . in the home often heating and air conditioners are on unnecessarily.” And the United States knows this too, having once been a champion of conservation and energy productivity. According to energy expert Lisa Margonelli from the New America Foundation, since 1970 the United States has met 75% of its new energy needs through greater efficiency rather than new energy supplies. So that knowledge is locked within our national DNA, trying to get out.
And yet Europe is the one leading the charge into a new era of energy productivity and conservation. Helpful in understanding Europe’s approach is a review of the findings of an important study by the U.S.-based McKinsey Global Institute, the economic research arm of global business consultants McKinsey & Company. The McKinsey study found that it would be relatively easy for industrialized nations—and the United States in particular—to greatly reduce energy demand as well as GHG emissions without reducing our standard of living. To achieve this we wouldn’t need huge investments, costly research, or high-tech solutions—just more widespread use of existing technology. In other words, this is low-hanging fruit, with realistic and cost-effective potential.
The McKinsey report’s analysis is grounded in the reality that residential and commercial buildings and road transportation will drive 57% of energy growth between now and 2020. And 75% of global energy use occurs in urban areas, where geographic compactness can aid in designing and disseminating more efficient systems. McKinsey identifies five sectors—residential, commercial, transportation, industrial, and power generation—where significant reductions in energy use and carbon emissions can be achieved without great sacrifice by targeting efforts to implement currently available technology to these sectors.
III. Residential Sector
The residential sector is the largest single consumer of energy worldwide, responsible for 25% of global energy demand, and also has the largest potential for improving energy efficiency. In the size of our dwellings, Americans are world gluttons. The typical new U.S. home is 40% larger than that of 25 years ago, even though the average household today has fewer people; and the United Nations says homes in the United States take up a third more space than those in western Europe, twice as much as in eastern Europe, and six times as much as in Pakistan. Not only do Europeans have smaller homes, but also they have methodically implemented available technologies that harvest some of the low-hanging fruit, such as high-efficiency building shells (including the highest-grade insulation and windows), energy-saving light bulbs, more efficient “standby power” requirements for household appliances, and solar water heaters that substantially cut energy use.
“Europe and Japan already do many of the things necessary and have a much smaller ecological impact as a result,” says Diana Farrell, lead author of the McKinsey report and former Obama Administration economic advisor. “Yet they still have a high standard of living and strong economies—proof that energy productivity and efficiency do not have to hurt the economy.”
She cites as one example the difference between common household appliances in the United States and Europe. “The standby power consumption in the United States of televisions and other appliances can account for up to 10% of residential power consumption. Yet the technology is already available and being used elsewhere to reduce that standby power from up to 60 watts to one watt. This is an area that is ripe for a government efficiency standard,” meaning a government regulation mandating that TVs and kitchen and other appliances purchased in the United States must include technology to reduce standby power.
Other simple changes include motion sensors to switch off lights when no one is occupying a room; and replacing traditional incandescent lightbulbs with eco-friendly, low-wattage CFLs, which use a fifth of the power of incandescents. Lighting alone accounts for 10-15% of domestic and 25-30% of commercial power use, making motion sensors and CFLs important tools in the battle to reduce energy use. A total switch to CFLs would cut worldwide electricity demand by 18%. The EU slowly phased out incandescents by 2012, giving ample time for European governments to vigorously promote CFLs. Estimates say that getting rid of incandescent bulbs has reduced the EU’s carbon emissions by 25 million tons a year. In the United States this changeover mostly has been left to random consumer discretion. And motion sensors for lights are hardly in use, as evidenced by any downtown area at night, where office buildings can be seen blazing at full wattage even though all the workers have gone home.
Widespread implementation of other existing technologies offers the promise of large gains in energy efficiency in heating buildings. For example, in conventional electricity generation, only about 35% of the fuel is converted into electricity while 65% is lost as wasted heat that is belched up the smokestack. But Europe has been pioneering the use of what is known as “cogeneration,” or “combined heat and power” (CHP) systems, which recapture the heat and recycle it, putting it to use not only to warm things but even to generate air conditioning if necessary. Cogeneration can achieve an efficiency of up to 90%, producing energy savings of up to 40% compared to conventional generation.
Denmark is leading the world in warming buildings with cogeneration methods. Hundreds of thousands of Danish homes and other buildings are warmed by surplus heat from power plants. Homes used to be heated entirely with oil, often by inefficient individual boilers in their basements, just as in the United States. But in the 1980s the Danish government embarked on a massive overhaul of the country’s approach to heating. It developed a combined heat-and-power system in which surplus heat, produced as a byproduct at power plants, is transported in insulated pipes to heat homes and offices. This cogeneration, or “district heating,” technology wasn’t new but had been confined to compact quarters, such as university campuses. Building the district-heating system for a large community, such as a city or town, was a pharaonic undertaking that took a decade. Streets had to be torn up for the installation of massive underground pipes so that the heat could be transported from hundreds of small power plants near cities.
The result? About 61% of household heat is produced from surplus heat from power plants. Denmark’s energy consumption has remained stable for more than 30 years, even as the country’s economy has doubled, with cogeneration accounting for about half of Denmark’s energy savings. During the same period, energy consumption in the United States rose 40%. The average American now uses 13,300 kwh of electricity a year, compared with the average Dane’s use of 6,600. Recycled energy from cogeneration amounts to over 50% of all energy used in Denmark today; it makes up nearly 40% of all energy used in the Netherlands and Finland, and 20% in Germany, Poland, and Portugal, but only 8% in the United States.
Another technology showing real potential for the residential sector is called “passive housing” and it has been introduced in Germany and Scandinavia. A passive house uses ultra-thick insulation and cleverly designed doors and windows to encase its living space inside an airtight, hermetically sealed shell that barely allows any heat to escape or any cold to seep in. It then uses an ingenious central ventilation system where the warm air going out passes side by side with clean, cold air coming in, exchanging heat with 90% efficiency. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies. Even on the coldest nights in central Germany, the passive houses there get all the heat and hot water they need from the amount of energy that would be needed to run a hair dryer.
These houses are part of a revolution in building design. In Germany, passive houses cost only about 5-7% more to build than conventional houses, yet they use about 1/20th the heating energy. There are now an estimated 15,000 passive houses, and the industry is starting to thrive. School buildings in Frankfurt are being constructed with this technique, and the European Commission and European Parliament are promoting passive-house building, having passed the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive in 2010 which has mandated that by 2020 all new buildings will be nearly zero-energy buildings and that member states will draw up national plans for increasing the number of nearly zero‐energy buildings. But in the United States, passive housing barely exists; in fact, the advanced windows and heat-exchange ventilation systems needed to make passive houses work properly are not widely available.
IV. Commercial Sector
Similarly, in the commercial sector—businesses, municipalities, universities, schools, and hospitals—more low-hanging fruit can be plucked, according to the McKinsey report. Buildings (both commercial and residential) are estimated to account for 50% of total energy use in newer cities and more than 70% in older urban areas. In the United States, buildings account for 65% of electricity consumption and 30% of GHG emissions. Better building codes and office equipment standards, including incentives for “green” building construction that maximizes the energy productivity of buildings, and better auditing to ensure implementation of these codes and standards would greatly decrease energy consumption.
Europe has become a leader in using green building design and construction practices, including for large commercial buildings as well as residential. Since the mid-1990s, all new construction in Europe has had to meet basic requirements for design efficiency, making green architecture an everyday reality. Europe has pioneered the use of natural lighting, cogeneration, solar power, fuel cells, advanced ventilation, motion sensors to switch off lights and control fans, special glass that allows daylight in but keeps heat and ultraviolet rays out and minimizes heat loss in winter, and much more. A new generation of architects has expanded the definition of green design so that it is now common practice.
These architects are breaking barriers with eye-popping, award-winning designs. One of the best examples is a building known as Energon, a five-story office building for 420 employees in Ulm, Germany, which makes use of the earth’s natural temperature for its heating and cooling. Like the previously mentioned passive residential designs, Energon’s passive, hermetically sealed interior has done away with conventional mechanical heating and cooling systems. Besides employing common green design features, such as optimal positioning to the sun, ultra-efficient insulation, solar panels on the rooftop, and a central, large glass-roofed atrium, the building uses a bold innovation to regulate its temperature. It sucks air into the building from underground canals extending three hundred feet into the ground. At that depth the surface temperature no longer influences the air temperature since the earth’s natural temperature remains nearly the same, no matter the season. Then, with the help of 40 vertical probes, the air can be further cooled or heated, adjusted by a heat exchanging device before it is sucked into the building. Thus, the ground functions as heat storage or cold storage, depending on the time of year. The air then circulates through the atrium and through canals leading throughout the five stories of the building. Despite the building’s sci-fi design, its construction costs were comparable to those of a standard office building of the same size, yet its ongoing operating costs are far cheaper and its carbon output significantly reduced. Energon’s ability to deal with the frigid German winters has surpassed expectations, maintaining optimum temperature even as the building uses less energy and produces 175 fewer tons of CO2 than a normal office building does. Other buildings with clever energy-efficient designs are popping up all over Germany.
Other innovative designs are found throughout Europe. In London, the city’s classic British skyline close to the Thames has been interrupted by the oddball appearance of a 41-story building that looks like an enormous glass American football standing on end and jutting into the sky. Dubbed the Gherkin (apparently some think it looks like a pickle), what is as remarkable as its striking glass exterior shape is its energy-efficient interior, which consumes up to 50% less energy than a conventional office building. The building’s curved shape maximizes the use of natural daylight, reducing the need for artificial lighting. The Gherkin also uses a system of advanced ventilation and computer-controlled blinds, as well as weather sensors on its outside surface to monitor the temperature, wind speed, and sunlight so that the blinds close and window panels open automatically, as necessary.
Another pioneering design is Stockholm’s central transit station, which harnesses the body warmth of 250,000 daily commuters to warm up water, which in turn is pumped through pipes to a new office block to heat its interior. In Växjö, Sweden, the town utilizes a rather ghoulish source of cogeneration—it channels leftover heat from the local crematorium into homes. The Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart is an architectural tour de force, with a sophisticated ventilation system that, rather than recycling used air, as is typical for buildings that depend on old air-conditioning systems, stores hot and cool air in the museum’s thick concrete walls. That air then is drawn into a towering central atrium and distributed throughout the building.
On average, the lower running costs of green design features typically pay for the slight increase in their construction costs within a couple of years. At the same time, they dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Despite all these obvious advantages, the United States has no federal regulations that require a minimal level of energy productivity achieved through building construction. It has some voluntary guidelines, the so-called LEED guidelines, which were drafted by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. But being voluntary, they are followed by only a handful of architects and builders, less than 1% of the potential market, according to one estimate. As green construction costs have declined, interest in using LEED guidelines has increased, but by European standards the LEED guidelines are less than adequate and lead to a narrow view of what sustainability means. One European architect working in the United States said that in Europe “energy consumption, the organization of the workplace, urbanism . . . are all seen as interlinked,” but in the United States, green design has been narrowly tailored to LEED’s checklist of dos and don’ts, so there is little attempt at whole system design. Commenting on a building he designed in San Francisco, he said, “We didn’t even bother to go after the LEED ranking because it doesn’t necessarily lead to the most efficient building.”
Not surprisingly, American buildings lag far behind their European counterparts in energy productivity. One study measuring heat efficiency in walls and windows and on rooftops showed the United States trailing Germany, Denmark, and Stockholm, Sweden, often by significant margins. With the United States lacking enforceable standards and regulations, the average building uses roughly a third more energy than its German counterpart. Improving energy efficiency in buildings would translate to a 25% reduction in their carbon emissions. And various studies have shown that, beyond the environmental impacts, green design techniques also reduce operating costs, boost property values, create a more pleasant work environment, and improve employees’ health and productivity. One study found that worker productivity in green buildings typically rises by about 6-16% as a result of the use of natural lighting, more windows, better air quality, and other features. The United States is missing out on all these benefits.
Rounding out the McKinsey report’s results are those related to transportation (which I will explore later) and the industrial sector. The industrial sector actually comprises several sectors that, combined, have the largest energy demand of all, 47% of the global total. This sector ranges from highly energy intensive industries such as steel, chemicals, and aluminum to a broad array of less energy intensive industries such as food processing, textiles, and electronics. Widespread use of current technologies should result in large gains in energy efficiency in this sector as well, possibly as high as 16-22%, according to the McKinsey report.
Most observers, whether scientists, the public, or increasingly even business leaders, recognize that the low carbon economy is fast approaching. Many have feared that the economic crisis would halt all plans for ecological sustainability, but the EU has not allowed it to thwart its drive. EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso told the BBC, “The financial crisis is not an excuse. On the contrary, we can make it a win-win situation. We can create more green jobs; we can promote more investment in the low-carbon economy of the future.”
Certainly those Americans looking for their country to become more of a partner in these efforts should be cheered by the fact that, as the McKinsey report makes clear, it will be relatively easy for the United States to reduce energy demand and GHG emissions greatly without reducing our quality of life, just by achieving a more widespread use of existing conservation methods and technologies. That’s the low-hanging fruit. And it’s also good news that, while many American leaders have rejected carbon limits by claiming that they would hurt American businesses and cost American jobs, Europe has shown the baselessness of that fear. In the early 2000s, Europe enacted far-reaching conservation measures and reduced its carbon footprint even as its economy surpassed the U.S. economy in 2007. The economic crash in 2008 has slowed progress somewhat, but not Europe’s commitment. In fact, European leaders and public are keenly aware that, as we have seen, many of the new technologies and emerging energy industries have contributed to job creation.
On the other hand, a nation must have the political will to enact the right energy standards and offer the right incentives. Unfortunately, under both the Obama and Bush Administrations little has been done to spur the United States to live up to its responsibilities as the world’s largest per capita polluter. President Obama at least has appointed recognized scientists and experts to key cabinet and regulatory positions, and in his speeches promotes renewable energy (like solar and wind) and alternative transport (like electric cars, ethanol, and high speed trains). President Obama’s February 2009 fiscal stimulus included tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks and other financial incentives to boost the use of renewable energy and to produce a nationwide smart power grid. While that’s not a lot of money by European standards, at least it was trying to pave the way toward a new direction. Unfortunately, however, due to partisan gridlock as well as the use of anti-majoritarian legislative roadblocks like the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, much of the agenda for climate change or implementing the low hanging fruit remains strangled in the Congress. The United States single-handedly undermined the Copenhagen summit on climate change because the Obama Administration was not able to pass a legislative package that could meet European expectations for decreasing carbon emissions. And with the United States not facing up to its responsibilities, that was all the excuse that China, India, and the developing world needed to refuse to give commitments.
One of the unfortunate lessons from Copenhagen was that not even an Obama-led United States can be counted on as a reliable partner. Europe is trying to step into the leadership vacuum, but without the world’s largest national economy and per capita polluter making greater efforts, success is in jeopardy. Only time will tell if the United States will join Europe in accepting global responsibility to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, and increase energy productivity.
V. The European Way of Transportation
Each historical epoch has produced its own modes of transportation, arising from a nexus of the existing technology, energy sources, commercial needs, and geographic layout of that time and place. Whatever the modes, whether ox-drawn wagon, steam locomotive, or A380 jumbo jet, they are charged with the crucial task of moving large quantities of things—people, products, raw materials—around the chessboard.
In today’s mass industrial society, transportation is the circulatory system of daily life. The world’s connection to Middle East turmoil is largely predicated on our need to slurp up large quantities of oil for transportation purposes, resulting in a global transportation sector that is responsible for over half of the worldwide petroleum use and nearly a fifth of the total energy use. Oil is the very blood coursing through the veins of our modern societies. The use of such massive quantities of hydrocarbon fuels and its many derivates (including natural gas, around which much hope has been pinned lately) is greatly responsible for the global climate change crisis. So we have a lot at stake in finding new means of transportation beyond those that rely on hydrocarbon fuels like oil and natural gas, as well as in making current modes more efficient so that they use less fuel. We are engaged in a search of epochal proportions.
In the transportation sector we see a pattern that is by now familiar—Europe leading, the United States lagging. For several decades Europe has been implementing transportation innovations that leave it much better positioned than the United States in this era of unstable energy prices and GHG warnings. Its cars and trucks use much less gasoline per mile, it has developed efficient mass transportation based on a vast network of trains and subways, it is pioneering the use of non–petroleum powered vehicles, and it has done much to encourage low-tech forms of transportation, especially bicycling and walking. Consequently, while the United States has seen a 21% rise in oil consumption since 1980, most European countries have seen significant drops, with Denmark and Sweden’s oil consumption dropping by a third, Germany’s by 20%, France’s by 14%, and Italy’s by 13%. Other nations, especially Japan, also have done much to make their societies more fuel efficient. If the world has any hope of making the leap to an energy efficient, low-carbon transportation paradigm, the United States as the world’s largest per capita polluter has a lot of learning and catching up to do. And it matters to the fate of the ecosystem that we rein in our gluttonous ways, so the rest of the world is watching and waiting.
A. Trains and Subways
The jewel in the European transportation system is its trains, whether between cities or within them. Famous for their efficiency, speed, and relatively low carbon emissions, Europe’s trains and subways run on time, and they’re comfortable, affordable, and usually convenient. Comparing Europe’s trains with the United States’ is like comparing a professional major league team with one in the minors. Europe has built a network of routes for high-speed trains that crisscross the continent, allowing travelers to connect between major cities in remarkably little time. France recently launched the fastest rail train in the world, which can reach a top speed of 357 miles per hour and regularly cruises along at an average of 140 to 180 miles per hour. These high-speed trains use the latest railway technologies, from devices that tilt them on curves to underfloor traction systems that enhance their propulsion.
Europe has shown that high-speed trains can compete with air travel not only in terms of travel time but also in terms of the impact on the environment. Trains emit an estimated 67 pounds of carbon CO2 dioxide per passenger compared with 187 pounds per passenger for air travel, a difference of over six tons per 100 passengers. And because train travel embarks from city centers, you don’t have to endure the hassle of traveling to the airport on the outskirts of the city or suffer the indignities of passing through post-9/11 airport security. You just show up at the station 15 minutes before departure, board the train, and off you go. A trip from London to Paris or Brussels is as fast on the train as on an airplane when you add in time spent waiting in the airport and traveling to and from the airport.
Twice I have taken the Eurostar train through the Chunnel, from Brussels to London. The Chunnel is one of the great engineering marvels of our times; just think of burrowing beneath the English Channel, the body of water separating the British Isles from the European continent, the one that saved Britain from the Nazis in World War II and from the Spanish Armada in 1588. As I boarded a comfortable car, I was eager with excitement and anticipation. My train entered the Chunnel at 2 p.m. and in my head I heard the sounds of heralds and trumpets marking the momentous occasion. I settled in for the ride, a bit anxious about the tons of salty water that surrounded us, literally swallowing the train tube through which I was hurtling. By the time we emerged into the English countryside a mere twenty-seven minutes later, I realized what was remarkable about the journey was how unremarkable it was. It felt like any other train ride in Europe. The ordinariness itself was a testament to the extraordinary achievement of this human invention that has bridged chasms of history and geography, part of the new glue of Europe.
Yes, the United States has a high-speed train line—at least in theory. Amtrak’s Acela Express, which runs from Boston to Washington, D.C., uses the same high-speed French engine technology. But because it doesn’t have the right kind of railroad tracks, the Acela rarely approaches anything like French speeds. For a grand total of 18 miles out of 450, the train maxes out at 150 miles per hour, but for the rest of the trip the Acela averages only 68 miles per hour, hardly high speed and no faster than an automobile, and for a premium price. Unfortunately America’s railway system is chronically underfunded, underdeveloped, and consequently underutilized. Across the Atlantic, the European Union has earmarked tens of billions of dollars to finance trans-European networks, much of the funding going to five priority transcontinental rail links, which are due to be completed by 2015. Spain has become a leader in high-speed trains, with five lines now in operation and several others planned for the near future. But in the United States, funding for the federal rail system has been a constant political football, seen by some political leaders as a government boondoggle to be axed from the budget. President Obama became the first president to earmark specific money for high-speed rail, a total of $8 billion, which was a decent down payment. But to put that in perspective, a single central train station in Stuttgart cost $5 billion. California appears to be moving forward with a plan to build a 520-mile high-speed rail line linking Los Angeles to San Francisco, but it’s not slated to be finished until 2033. Unfortunately the United States is once again lagging behind, not only Europe but also Japan and China, when it comes to high-speed rail.
Within European cities, the urban train and subway system also is impressive. Not only are the trains punctual, they also are cleverly designed. In Barcelona, the subway trains come every four to six minutes, and onboard a kind of electronic scoreboard above the door tells you what station you just left and which one you are approaching. (Recently I’ve noticed a few New York City subway cars also incorporating this technology.) As a result of a well-planned and well-funded transportation infrastructure, nearly six of ten Europeans spend less than 20 minutes each way commuting to work.
One time in Stockholm, a friend and I were planning to catch the subway train at his Västertorp stop to take me to where I was giving a lecture. My friend informed me, “The train will arrive at 11:05 a.m.,” and so I said to him, “Perhaps we should get to the platform five minutes early or so to make sure we don’t miss it.” I was thinking in terms of the way mass transportation works in San Francisco, where I live—they don’t even bother printing a bus schedule because they know they’ll never keep to it, instead you wait on the curb, constantly glancing at your wristwatch, an anxious and sometimes nerve wracking experience.
My friend just looked at me quizzically, not understanding, and then finally grinned. “This isn’t the U.S.,” he said. “When I say it will be here at 11:05, I mean exactly at 11:05.” I just nodded my head and shrugged. But I still didn’t believe him; I kept unconsciously rushing us to get there a bit early. We arrived on the platform at 11:04, and exactly one minute later the train arrived. I was inwardly giddy, even ecstatic, in a way I did not think possible over a train schedule. After experiencing the gross inefficiency of San Francisco’s public transit system, as well as that of most other American cities, I was amazed at this triumph of engineering and public expenditure. It was like viewing the genius of a Monet painting or a LeBron James slam dunk.
B. The “Horseless Carriage” Gets a Makeover
Europe also is blazing a new path in designing new fuels and energy-efficient technologies for motor vehicles. There’s no better example of how the United States, the world’s biggest per capita polluter, has refused to modernize its ways than the gross inefficiency of our automobiles. American vehicles have engines that dwarf those of other nations, double the average size of engines in France and Italy and nearly double the average in Germany and Britain. That’s hardly surprising, since for decades America’s bipartisan policy lagged far behind Europe’s and Japan’s policies, letting Detroit cruise along at the wasteful standard of only 27.5 mpg for cars and 22 mpg for SUVs and trucks. “To travel one mile in the United States requires 37 percent more fuel than to travel one mile in Europe or Japan,” says Diana Farrell from the McKinsey Institute and former deputy director of the National Economic Council.
If the United States were to match the fuel economy standards of Europe and Japan, U.S. demand for oil would be cut by 4 million barrels per day, or 1.5 billion barrels of oil per year, according to various estimates. Given that the United States consumes about 8 billion barrels of oil per year—about a quarter of the world’s total—oil dependence would be reduced by nearly 20%, a huge amount. A shift in standards also would accelerate the introduction of fuel-saving technologies, which in turn would spur the U.S. economy.
These gains would be more low-hanging fruit if the United States had the right laws and policies. But instead of demonstrating leadership, for years Democrats and Republicans alike enabled a plodding auto industry’s refusal to get with the times. Washington even created outrageous loopholes that allowed buyers of extra large gas-guzzling SUVs to take extra large tax deductions. Until recently, Congress hadn’t changed the nationwide fuel standard from 27 mpg since the 1970s. While the Bush Administration clearly was negligent in showing leadership, Democratic Party leaders also shoulder a share of the blame. During a crucial 2007 Senate debate over an energy bill, Michigan’s two Democratic senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, acted as shills for their home state’s auto industry, watering down the proposed higher fuel standards. In the House, the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Michigan’s John Dingell, for decades was the automobile industry’s stoutest defender; Dingell’s wife was a senior executive at General Motors, and a member of the family who founded the company.
So while European and Japanese automakers have had to innovate in order to meet their nations’ high fuel standards at or near 45 mpg, creating vehicles such as the ever-popular hybrids and modified diesel engines, the Big Three could lumber along with their gas guzzling cruisers until they were caught flat-footed when the price of gasoline escalated in recent years. At that point, they didn’t have any car or truck models that could compete with the high-mileage Japanese or European vehicles. That debacle led to the closing of plants and thousands of layoffs starting in 2006. By late in 2008, when the economy tanked and consumers quit spending, the auto companies were clinging to life support and had to be bailed out by Washington. General Motors, long the “general” of auto companies the world over, fell to its knees begging, and eventually declared bankruptcy.
Europe also is spearheading other transportation innovations. As a way of dealing with traffic jams and too many cars on the roads, the cities of London, Rome, and Stockholm have pioneered the creation of “congestion zones” within their city centers, where motorists are required to pay to enter. Every week in cities across Europe and the United States, vehicles idling on congested roads cost billions of dollars, belch tons of carbon and contribute to significant health-related costs from breathing in exhaust-choked air. So London began charging about $11 per day for any vehicle driving in the eight-square-mile city core, and plowed the revenue raised back into the public transit system. Initially there was an outcry, including the usual overhyped prophecies of commercial doom and despair. But now Londoners have been convinced by the remarkable changes: traffic in the zone has declined 30%, and normally clogged streets have opened up. About 100,000 people pay the toll each day via cell phone, the Internet, or at retail shops across the city, and an array of 700 video cameras that read license plate numbers catches about 3,000 scofflaws per day, who are fined $150 apiece. The fares and fines raise approximately $200 million per year, most of it for public transport, which has improved and is making more people willing to ride it to travel into the city center.
Stockholm enacted a similar plan and saw a 22% decline in traffic, and Rome saw a 20% decline. The mayor of Paris has unveiled plans to make a three square mile zone nearly car-free. While American cities also are choked by traffic, and commuters as well as experts demand intervention, no mayors have had the political will or courage to implement congestion zones. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City showed interest, he ran into predictable opposition in the form of powerful special interests, as well as New Yorkers’ apparent infatuation with their automobiles, even while they complain about congestion, smog, and all the related illnesses.
Europe also has taken a lead role in developing ways to run motor vehicles on non-petroleum substances. A lot of attention has been given to the development of plug-in electric cars and to converting bioproducts into fuel known as ethanol. Denmark is installing a nationwide electric car charging network, including automated battery-swapping stations where drivers can swap in fresh batteries in less than 30 minutes. Once the network has been established, Danish utilities will use its excess wind power capacity for charging the electric cars. Denmark currently gets 20% of its electricity from wind turbines, but a portion of that electricity is exported because it can’t be stored economically. With the introduction of the electric car, Denmark can use that wind-generated electricity locally to charge car batteries, greatly boosting Denmark’s bid to become energy self-sufficient.
Many other European countries and their automakers are in the advanced stages of electric car development. German automakers BMW and Mercedes are developing all-electric cars, with BMW scheduled to unveil its i3 in late 2013. Japanese leaders as well as President Barack Obama have pledged to develop this technology. On the campaign trail in 2008, candidate Obama pledged to put one million electric plug-in hybrid cars that can get up to 150 miles per gallon on the road by 2015. And his February 2009 fiscal stimulus included a sizable amount of money for development of advanced battery technology. The U.S.-developed Chevrolet Volt and Japan-developed Nissan Leaf are the two top selling electric vehicles in the world, with about 40,000 vehicles sold. Electric cars continue to improve in practicality and cost, and in 2011 both the Volt and Leaf sold more units than did the Toyota Prius in 2000, its first year on the U.S. market. The Obama Administration and European and Japanese leaders should look for ways to partner and share successful technologies that will move this pioneering technology forward.
Europe also has been leading in developing the promising alchemy of converting bioproducts into ethanol fuel. To its credit, the Bush Administration ramped up production of ethanol—but from food crops like corn and soybeans, despite warnings from experts that those are the wrong bioproducts to use for raw material, because they compete with the food supply. Sure enough, in the spring of 2008 we saw a dramatic rise in food prices around the world. Also, experts at the Earth Policy Institute, based in Washington, D.C., have said that growing, transporting, and distilling corn to make ethanol uses almost as much energy as is contained in the ethanol itself. For all those reasons Europe has taken a different route, producing ethanol from less expensive and more abundant cellulose fibers, such as grass, straw, sawdust, and wood cuttings from fast-growing trees. Europe also goes after the agricultural leftovers such as corn and rice stalks and wheat straw, which can’t be eaten and often are left in the fields or burned. Estimates say that collecting just a small portion of these leftovers could yield nearly 15 billion gallons of ethanol, four times the current output, with no additional land demands and without competing with the food supply. President Obama is a big supporter of ethanol fuel, as are many of his top cabinet members and advisors. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has criticized corn-based ethanol while supporting cellulosic ethanol, and Obama seems to share those concerns. Ethanol seems certain to be a part of America’s and Europe’s energy mixes in the decades to come, but challenges remain to ensure that the ethanol is produced in such a way as to ensure the energy output is net positive.
Air transport is a relatively small component of the transportation sector, consuming only 2% of global energy, compared to road transport, which consumes 16%. So not much effort has focused so far on air transport energy efficiency. But air transport is the fastest growing part of this sector, so at some point the focus will have to change. For that reason, Europe has pressed forward with its plan to enforce its new law that all international as well as European airlines buy carbon credits to offset their emissions. For its resolute stand, Europe has been subjected to vehement criticism from China, India and other countries, which was expected. But disappointingly even the Obama Administration has threatened Europe with a trade war if it tries to enforce a carbon credit system for air travel. This has been very frustrating for European leaders, who thought that Obama would be more of a climate change partner.
On the whole, because of Europe’s more robust and highly developed transportation sector, including its more fuel-efficient autos and its rapid mass transit providing excellent transport both between and within cities, BusinessWeek has written that Europe is likely “the best buffered from [oil] price increases.” The roller coaster ride of global energy geopolitics is not going to level off anytime soon, and Europe’s transportation sector is much better positioned to navigate the ups and downs than America’s gas-guzzling system that is more exclusively reliant on the automobile.
C. From High Tech to Low Tech Transport: Bicycles and Pedestrians
One of the ironies of Europe is that, while it is leading the world in high-tech transportation innovations, such as high-speed bullet trains and fuel-efficient autos, it also specializes in low-tech options. Whether in Amsterdam, Prague, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Stockholm, Oslo, Barcelona, or any of the thousands of small towns that dot the countryside, bicyclists and pedestrians are on the go.
Once when I was visiting Germany’s Mosel Valley and its meandering landscape of vineyards, verdant riverfronts, and towering castles, I was struck by the number of senior citizens pedaling along the bike paths on the side of the road. Their handlebar baskets held a few groceries, they were not out for a leisurely jaunt. This was their transportation for errands. When I was in Umeå, Sweden, a smallish city several hundred miles northeast of Stockholm, I saw the same thing: people of all ages, noticeably the elderly, pedaling their bikes around town and along the riverbank. Amsterdam has so many bicyclists that you have to be just as wary of bikes as of automobiles when you cross the street, particularly because bicyclists aren’t as loud. In Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, where I stayed once for several weeks, I went walking every afternoon along the numerous Wanderwegs—walking paths—that crisscrossed the brilliant yellow fields and blossoming hills. And I had plenty of company: it seemed that for many Germans, walking and bicycling are more than hobbies, they are a way of life.
Europeans seem to be literally biking and walking their way to health, and research bears this out. One study found that whereas walking and cycling account for less than a tenth of all urban trips in American cities, they account for a third of all such trips in Germany and an incredible half in the Netherlands. The average was 36% of all trips across eight different European countries, compared with 7% for the United States. Perhaps most striking are the large differences in transportation behavior among the older populations of various countries. Walking actually increases with age in both the Netherlands and Germany. The Dutch and Germans who are 75 and older make roughly half their trips by foot or bike, compared to only 6% of trips for Americans age 65 and older. Cycling is almost nonexistent among the American elderly, but it accounts for a fourth of all trips made by the Dutch elderly. This activity not only provides the Dutch and German elderly with valuable physical exercise, but it also assures them a level of mobility and independence that greatly enhances their quality of life.
It also contributes to longer life expectancy. The European countries with the highest levels of walking and cycling have much lower rates of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity than the United States. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, for example, have obesity rates only a third of the U.S. rate, and Germany’s rate is only half as high. Also, the average healthy life expectancies in those four European countries are 2.5 to 4.4 years longer than the U.S. life expectancy, even though their per capita health expenditures are about half those of the United States.
In the United States, walking and cycling are discouraged by poorly designed living environments that are geared for automobiles. A range of poor public policy choices have made walking and cycling inconvenient, unpleasant, and, above all, unsafe. The most obvious symbol of better European policy is their massive and ever-expanding network of bike paths, which provide completely separate rights-of-way for cyclists. From 1978 to 1996, the Dutch more than doubled the extent of their already extensive network of bike paths and lanes, and the Germans almost tripled their network; Amsterdam alone has more than 300 miles of bike lanes. One Dutch city has five bicycle parking garages, one of which can hold 5,000 bikes. Just as important, the bike paths and lanes in the Netherlands and Germany form a truly integrated, coordinated network, covering both rural and urban areas. Unlike the fragmented cycling routes in the United States, Dutch and German bikeway systems serve practical destinations for everyday travel, not just recreational attractions for young cycling enthusiasts.
Other nations besides Germany and the Netherlands have embraced bicycling, both for its health benefits and to lower reliance on autos for transportation, especially in cities. In 2007, Paris followed the lead of Amsterdam and other cities and introduced a highly successful program that put over 20,000 bicycles on the streets, rented from a 1,000 unmanned kiosks located around the city. The rental cost is about a dollar, plus a $200 deposit paid for with a credit card to ensure the bicycle’s safe return. You rent the bicycle from one spot, ride it to work, and drop it at another kiosk nearby (and then your deposit is credited back). Commuters have taken to the program with enthusiasm, prompting one journalist to write that Paris, the land of the Tour de France, has gone “cycling mad.” These bike-sharing programs now can be found across the European continent, from Vienna to Barcelona, from Rome to Oslo.
Pedestrian-only zones have become so widespread that they can now be found in virtually every European city. In large cities, such zones often encompass much of the city center and the expansive public squares, providing sizable areas where pedestrians have their own right-of-way. Of utmost importance in a densely populated settlement, the square preserves a sense of openness and light in the living environment. Many of the main streets and cozy alleyways terminate at or crisscross the plaza, so the urban design literally channels the feng shui energy of the city into a focal point or hub, like a magnifying glass focuses sunlight. This gives a particular sense of space, an energy flow, to the living environment. The concept of a square is ancient, and for hundreds of years every European village had its own square or commons, and most still do. These ancient spaces still linger, even as they have been nearly decimated in the United States by the car culture and shopping malls. Most American towns don’t have a center anymore, and few American cities have a grand central plaza (though many have nice parks scattered here and there). The disappearance of the central square is an unquantifiable loss, for this sense of the ancient harkens back to our deepest human longing for community and contact, of shared, womblike physical space as opposed to atomized and individualized space.
Besides the overall urban design, other features sensitive to the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists help create an environment friendly to them. These include extensive use of traffic-calming techniques in residential neighborhoods (speed bumps and narrow traffic lanes, for example), rigorous traffic education of motorists, and strict enforcement of regulations protecting pedestrians and bicyclists. Dedicated pathways and route systems help insulate cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles, which are involved in most bicyclist and pedestrian deaths or injuries. Denis Baupin, the transportation chief of Paris responsible for the City of Light’s hugely successful bicycle-sharing program, also has reduced auto speed limits to just 19 miles an hour on 1,000 streets and closed many to cars altogether. Baupin has changed the face of mobility in Paris, making it easier for pedestrians, bikers, and users of public transportation, and less accessible to car drivers. All of these efforts are guided by a philosophy that recognizes that efficient and affordable low-tech transportation methods are crucial to the democratization of mobility, as well to efforts to rein in carbon emissions.
In the United States, we have adopted a few European innovations like bike share, traffic calming strategies in neighborhoods, and some expansion of bike lanes in several major cities as well as outside of cities. But unfortunately in the car-dominant United States, authorities have not made serious attempts to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, with most measures falling far short of the need if they cost much money or would inconvenience automobile drivers. Thus, a lack of political will and vision have prevented Americans from enjoying the health, transportation, and quality-of-life benefits that result from more walking and cycling and less car travel.
VI. Redirecting Behavior Via Cap and Trade and a Carbon Tax
In 2005, Europe launched the world’s first successful cap-and-trade system, which attempts to cap the overall amount of carbon in the environment by creating market-based incentives for companies to swap carbon credits and reduce their carbon emissions. Some fifteen thousand businesses, power plants and organizations in Europe are participating in the system. The initial rollout of Europe’s cap and trade system was bumpy, since officials handed out too many pollution allowances between 2005 and 2007 which caused carbon prices to collapse and reduced the incentive for participants to make cuts or invest in low-carbon technologies. But European policymakers figured out their mistake, tightened the cap, and the carbon trading system settled in. More recently, a recent study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that GHG emissions in the affected sectors of the E.U.-15 fell by 9.2% between 2005 and 2010 (and 13% in the entire E.U.) — more than most experts expected — but only fell by 5.3% in the U.S. during this period (with the U.S. having no cap and trade system at all). The data suggest that the reductions in emissions have been spread out across multiple industries, with fuel combustion and the electricity sector falling the most, followed by manufacturing, construction, and industrial processes.
Of course, Europe’s recession between 2008 and 2010 slowed the economy and along with it carbon emissions, yet overall since 2005 the E.U. economy has expanded slightly. Yet still their GHG emissions saw steady declines. Looking at these numbers, Washington Post reporter Brad Plumer commented, “It appears that Europe is starting to sever the traditional link between carbon emissions and economic growth,” and its cap and trade system is being given a big share of the credit. The designers of California’s recently launched cap and trade system consciously tried to emulate the European system.
Another tactic deployed in Europe is a carbon tax designed to discourage certain activities and products that are harmful to the environment, and to encourage other behaviors that are benign or even beneficial. You do that by charging a tax on activities that release CO2 and other gases that are fueling destructive climate change. The carbon tax rewards green living and changes people’s behavior; products and activities that are less harmful to the environment become less expensive, and harmful choices cost more. This tax also spurs technological innovation and green solutions as people and businesses look for ways to save money. Those who don’t want to pay more taxes can control how the tax affects them through the choices they make. You can keep driving that SUV, but you will pay a premium for the privilege. You can even make the levying of a carbon tax revenue neutral, so that it is not perceived as just another way for government to pry money out of people’s pockets, by simultaneously reducing other taxes, such as payroll taxes. “We should tax what we burn, not what we earn,” has become the motto of many proponents of a carbon tax.
Sweden, which today fulfills 48% of its energy needs through renewables, introduced a transportation carbon tax in 1991. Swedes today pay an extra $1.50 per gallon when they fill their tank (although many key industries are exempted partly or wholly). “It was the one major reason that steered society towards climate-friendly solutions,” says Emma Lindberg, an energy expert at the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. “It made polluting more expensive and focused people on finding energy-efficient solutions.” The former Swedish minister for the environment, Andreas Carlgren from the conservative Centre Party, adds, “Our carbon emissions would have been 20% higher without the carbon tax.” Finland, the Netherlands, Italy, and Norway also introduced carbon taxes in the 1990s, and more European countries are looking to adopt this approach in the near future. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy raised the idea of levying a carbon tax on imports from other nations that are not doing their fair share of reducing their carbon emissions, singling out the United States as the worst violator that was refusing to do its fair share. Sarkozy proposed that monetary incentives like a carbon tax would force a change in Americans’ behavior. But that idea was dropped with the election of Barack Obama, whom Europeans initially viewed as more willing to take the necessary steps to push the United States in the right direction. Given Obama’s failures in this area, and European disappointment, perhaps the idea of a carbon tax on flagrant polluters will be renewed.
VII. Europe’s Energy Challenges
The fragility of the oil-based global economy, the rise of wealthy and influential petro-nations, and the threat of climate change create trials for all nations. Securing a stable energy supply is fraught with geopolitical challenges and, no doubt, future surprises. The quest to create a “sustainable Europe” based on renewable energy sources and greater energy productivity has no certain outcome. Even eco-conscious Europe occasionally backslides, as shown by the decision of several European countries–including eco-leader Germany–to authorize 50 carbon-spewing coal-fired power plants to begin operating over the next decade. Fifty is not a huge number of plants, and the coal-fired plants will be “cleaner” than most, employing the latest technology for that purpose. But as one critic stated, “There’s no such thing as clean coal.”
In an economically competitive world, being green is a difficult challenge and the struggle to do so strikes at the heart of our modern, energy-intensive societies. Besides the obvious technological and economic hurdles to overcome, at least three other obstacles confront Europe.
First, the decentralized nature of the EU has been both a strength and a weakness when it comes to energy and security challenges. On the one hand, the various nations have been deploying different policy options and technologies to achieve their goals—France, Spain, and Germany with their high-speed trains, Sweden and Denmark with their cogeneration plants, Germany, Spain, and Britain with wind power, Italy and Iceland with geothermal power, Portugal, Spain, and Germany with major solar plants. Each country gains from the successes and insights of the others, creating a learning network that has made great strides in reducing Europe’s ecological footprint to half that of the United States. But if Europe is to take its efforts to the next level and reach its ambitious low-carbon goals by 2020, this decentralized approach may present an obstacle, since it will prevent economies of scale and the degree of continental coordination necessary for cross-border transmission of electricity. And it contributes to puzzling contradictions, such as energy leader Germany, which, under the influence of its powerful auto lobby and Germans’ love of fast cars, has rejected sensible speed limits that would cut carbon emissions and force carmakers to stop producing powerful cars for the high-speed autobahns. And then there’s France, one of the most nuclear power-dependent nations in the world, despite the alarming and unresolved issues of long-term waste storage. Reflecting the splits in Europe over nuclear power, Germany has decided to phase out its 17 nuclear power plants by 2022.
Related to this is the second obstacle: major power companies are treated by various countries as “national champions” and thereby shielded from competition and even, to some degree, regulation. There’s a happy medium between the deregulated energy market chaos in the United States, which led to the Enron meltdown and the California gouging debacle, and the status quo in Europe, in which energy-generating companies do not have much competition or, as a result, great incentive to innovate and employ newer technologies and renewable energy sources on a scale massive enough to take Europe to a higher level of energy productivity. Europe needs to strive harder to find this happy medium between secure energy supply and competition.
The third obstacle is the global puzzle of energy geopolitics, which, in the European case, mostly has been dramatized by Middle East instability and Russian saber rattling. The blowback from the American-driven Middle East policy washes up on the European doorstep on a regular basis, resulting in an influx of refugees that fosters tensions within Europe’s own domestic populations. And Russia, teetering on the edge of its autocratic past, supplies approximately 40% of the natural gas to Europe. Its unpredictable behavior has shown a willingness to manipulate the energy lifeline in a contest for geopolitical leverage. But while Russia’s brinksmanship has generated headlines, its impact is not as severe as it has been portrayed. Russia is the largest external gas supplier to the EU, but it is far from a monopoly provider. Europe’s ongoing diversification of its gas supply has resulted in Russia’s share of EU gas imports being cut in half, from 80% to 40%, since 1980. Currently, Russian gas represents just 6.5% of the overall EU primary energy supply. Moreover two-thirds of the EU’s imports of Russian gas go to western Europe where supply is sufficiently diversified from other suppliers, such as Azerbaijan and North Africa, that Russia’s games are not a credible threat. But a few eastern European nations (especially Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, and Slovakia), which together amount to a tiny share of Russia’s overall exports to Europe, rely heavily on Russian gas for their energy use, and therein lies the predicament.
“The problem is divisiveness, not dependence,” says Pierre Noël, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, specializing in energy security and EU energy policy. While Europe’s overall exposure to Russia’s energy games is a limited one, the disproportionate impact on eastern Europe revives old east-west rivalries. The most effective way, says Noël, for the EU to counter Russian attempts to divide European nations would be to restructure its internal gas market so that it is not segmented along national lines. Currently, there is not enough cross-border trading of gas within the EU, and when supply disruptions occur—as they did in January 2006 and 2009 due to a dispute between Ukraine and Russia—there is very little reallocation of supply between national markets. A single competitive and integrated European gas market would allow greater flexibility when supply is threatened in member state or region.
To address this situation, the European Commission announced its EU Energy Security Plan, calling for the creation of a continent-wide power grid with a Community Gas Ring that would allow EU countries to share gas supplies if Russia shuts down the supply. The supergrid also would link North Sea wind farms and the electricity grids of the Baltic region in northern Europe with the countries bordering the Mediterranean. But while this seems like an obvious and straightforward response, the European Commission has proposed this before and not followed through due to the reservations of some member states, especially Germany and France, that are wary of risking their own domestic supply. This issue taps into the existing east-west tension, and most experts agree that such a plan will take time to implement. The Commission established a task force that in 2011 issued key recommendations for standardization and regulatory directions for the deployment of smart grids. That’s slow progress, and in the meantime disputes between Russia and Ukraine have become regular events, along with the disruption in supply for several of the smaller countries of eastern Europe.
The years ahead promise many potential pitfalls and challenges, especially in light of the ongoing consequences from the global economic downturn. Over the next couple of decades, no one power source is likely to dominate as hydrocarbons dominated the Age of Oil. Different nations and different regions will have their own unique mixes of energy supplies and technologies that will respond best to local needs. One of my favorite examples of local adaptation is that of Linköping, Sweden’s fifth largest city, which runs its fleet of buses, garbage trucks, a train line, and some private taxis on bio-gas from methane harvested from…the guts of slaughtered cows! But while exotic examples like this one always attract headlines, the truth is conservation, efficiency, and increased energy productivity always will be the best energy supply of all.
VIII. The Role of the Political System in Greening the Political Economy
No discussion of Europe’s leadership in environmental and climate policy would be complete without noting the impact of European-style representative democracy on those policies. Europe’s democracies are quite different than the United States, deploying different institutions and practices. European democracies are far more representative of the varying political perspectives in society, and in particular have resulted in much greater electoral success for the Green Party across the continent. Research has demonstrated that European legislatures produce policy that is more majoritarian and reflective of a society-wide consensus than has been possible in the United States.
Nearly all European member states use proportional representation electoral systems, as well as some degree of public financing of campaigns, free media time for political parties and candidates, and universal/automatic voter registration. These in turn result in a number of other good government features, such as higher voter turnout, more robust political debate, a stronger ability to achieve a broad consensus, and a greater effectiveness to pass policy that reflects that consensus.
In particular, the political practices and methods named above result in a vigorous multiparty democracy that affords certain advantages not seen in America’s two-party democracy. For example, in Europe minor parties are welcomed for the valuable role they play as the “laboratories for new ideas,” challenging and stimulating voters, the media, and the major parties to think outside the conventional political box. Minor party alternatives to the major parties often are the only hope for shaking things up a bit. Multiparty democracy creates dialogue between the political center and the margins, which, in the short run can sound noisy and untidy but in the medium and long terms allows a much fuller airing of the issues and an inching toward national consensus.
But in the United States, minor parties are discriminated against with byzantine ballot access laws and various dirty tricks played by the two major parties to maintain their duopoly. They win virtually no representation at federal, state, or local levels. American voters are mostly bunkered down in safe, one-party districts and states where their frame of reference is not even of a two-party system but of one party that dominates their entire region. Political monocultures result, where debate becomes all but frozen. Whereas in Europe there is a recognition about the importance of minor parties, so they are encouraged with public financing of campaigns, free media time for advertising, and inclusion in televised debates. Those reforms help minor parties reach voters and participate in public discourse.
But only the use of a proportional representation electoral system allows smaller parties to win their fair share of seats. The U.S.-style, winner-take-all electoral system using one-seat districts is notorious for preventing minor parties and independent candidates from winning representation at any level of politics. Out of 535 seats in the Congress, minor parties hold zero seats and independents hold two; with more than 7,000 seats in state legislatures, minor parties and independents hold fewer than 20 seats today, most of them in tiny, rural Vermont. As one political pundit commented, “Lightning strikes more often than that.”
Particularly on environmental and climate change issues, the various Green parties across Europe have played an indispensable role. They have championed positions that initially had little public support because they were ahead of their time; now those same positions are the core of mainstream European politics, having been adopted by the major parties, even the conservative parties. Observing this practice over many years, one can see how Europe’s pluralistic democracies advance consensus building and forward-looking policy. The Green parties were able to make inroads because in a country like Germany only 5% of the national popular vote is needed to win representation in the national parliament, the Bundestag. Once represented in the legislature–the table of power–Green Party representatives were able to argue their positions and eventually broaden their support. Being represented in the federal and state legislatures, they were not so easily ignored and marginalized by the media, like the Green Party is in the United States. Compare that to the experience of U.S. Green parties, where winning 5% of the popular vote gets you no representation at all in America’s single-seat district, winner-take-all elections. The Green Party of Germany, which has never won more than 10% of the popular vote at the national level, occupies a large building in Berlin that is a beehive of paid staff and political leaders coming and going. European Green parties receive millions of dollars in public funding that is spent not only on election campaigns but also on staff, office space, supplies, computers, photocopiers, and printers—infrastructure. But in the United States, when the editor of the volunteer newsletter of the Green Party of California took a full-time job, the newsletter died.
So without proportional representation, public financing, free media time and universal/automatic voter registration, forward-looking voices have a very hard time gaining a place at the table in the United States. And that is tragic for environmental policy, since multiparty democracy creates a dynamic conversation between the dominant mainstream parties and the junior parties, between the center and the flanks of the political spectrum, which in turn is a valuable part of the consensus-seeking process over controversial issues. The European democracies are well equipped for consensus building and policy formation, but in the U.S. government is barely responsive today.
IX. Europe’s Energy (R)evolution
The looming threat of global climate change will be with us for years to come. It is the greatest challenge of our time. Much is at stake in the epic endeavor of halting the effects of this change. Hollywood storytellers already are spinning vivid tales of impending apocalypse, with films such as The Day after Tomorrow, Blade Runner, Children of Men, and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. portraying the dire consequences if we fail. Given the stakes, Europe has emerged as “the indispensable nation,” while the United States, the largest per capita polluter in the world, has been fiddling as the earth literally burns. The United States is woefully lagging behind Europe, Japan, and increasingly China in reaching for the low-hanging fruit and implementing the existing technologies that could make a difference.
There are signs of an awakening in the United States, but policy makers in Washington, D.C. seem to be consistently trailing the public and even many business leaders. Some of the state governments have stepped up to the plate, led by governors like Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger of California (who led the effort to pass a cap-and-trade system in California, which was launched in November 2012), and Democrat Bill Richardson of New Mexico (both have since left office). A relative boom in wind power has taken place, with former oil men such as T. Boone Pickens investing heavily in wind energy, resulting in installed capacity in the United States growing significantly in recent years (though it started from a small base, so overall capacity is still small). National energy mobilization in the United States could do for the economy what the Internet boom did in the 1990s or what the GI Bill did in the 1950s for the housing construction industry. Yet ironically much of this boom in the United States is being constructed by European companies from Spain, Germany, and Portugal, since they have the expertise and experience in developing large-scale wind projects. Foreign companies own about two-thirds of the wind projects under construction in Texas, as American companies mostly have been missing in action.
If the United States continues to refuse to change its energy ways, there is little incentive for China, India, and other emerging nations to do so, particularly since China and India’s per capita consumption is far below that of the much wealthier United States. As one Indian official said: “First you [the developed world] do virtually nothing to cut your emissions, and then you threaten us [the developing world] with drowning from global warming sea level rise if we don’t cut ours. It won’t wash.”
Fortunately, Europe is pointing the way toward a new (r)evolution in energy. Led by pragmatic yet far-sighted leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and others, who oversee the largest economic bloc in the world with the power to drive global markets, European governments and companies are responding in a way that demonstrates that action on global climate change can bring tremendous environmental, economic, and social benefits. Europe has been able to lead the world in energy policy even as its social capitalist economy has grown to become the largest in the world, and even as it continues to provide a generous workfare support system for families and workers. Europe shows unequivocally that these goals are not incompatible, in fact they can complement each other quite well. It’s a matter of having the correct vision, the right institutions and able leadership that will spend money on the right priorities. Europe appears to have plenty of each, and the whole world is hoping that the Obama Administration will figure out how to follow in Europe’s footsteps.
Europe has taken the lead in preparing for global warming, with widespread deployment of conservation practices and “green design” in everything from skyscrapers, public buildings, homes, and automobiles to low-wattage light bulbs, motion sensor lights and low-flush toilets. Europe has moved forward ambitiously with renewable energy technologies like solar, wind, and sea power, as well as efficient mass transit, high-speed trains, and more. As a result of this transformation, the average European emits half the carbon and uses half the electricity of the average American and it takes 40% more fuel to drive a mile in an American car compared to a European vehicle. Europe has reduced its “ecological footprint” (the per capita amount of the earth’s capacity consumed by a population) to half that of the United States for the same standard of living. And in the process, Europe has created hundreds of thousands of new green jobs. China also has begun greening its economy and society, but it is so vast and poor a country that it has a long way to go before it reaches Europe’s level of deployment or sophistication. So Europe is the de facto global leader in these matters: no other place is doing as much to forge a new path toward environmental sustainability and low carbon economies.
It’s a make-or-break century, with the fate of the inhabitable planet hanging in the balance. And Europe is leading the way, waiting for the United States, China, and other nations to join it in this bid to prevent a Venus atmosphere of our own creation, as well as to arrest the general degradation of the biosphere upon which human life depends.
[Steven Hill is a political writer and author of Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age. The material in this article is based on the author’s book, Europe's Promise (Univ. of California Press, 2010) (www.EuropesPromise.org). To access his other books, articles, and interviews on U.S. politics, climate change, political economy, global complexity, and future trends, visit www.Steven-Hill.com.
The material in this article is based on material from the author’s book, Europe's Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age.
 Daniel C. Esty et al., Pilot 2006 Environmental Performance Index, Appendix A, Policy Category Tables and Maps, 51, 52, 55, Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (New Haven 2006). The Environmental Peformance Index (EPI) ranks 149 countries according to 25 indicators tracked across six established policy categories: environmental health, air pollution, water resources, biodiversity and habitat, productive natural resources, and climate change. In 2006, the United States was ranked 28th for overall environmental performance and 23rd out of 29 OECD countries. In 2008, the United States was ranked 39th overall, just ahead of Belarus and Cuba. http://epi.yale.edu/CountryScores.
 World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report, Gland, Switzerland, Oct. 2008, at 36-38, available at http://assets.panda.org/downloads/living_planet_report_2008.pdf. Europe’s Total Ecological Footprint was rated at 4.7 hectares per person while the United States was rated at 9.4 hectares per person.
 Jane Burgermeister, Renewable Energy Jobs Soar in Germany, RenewableEnergyWorld.com, Apr. 8, 2008, http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/story?id=52089 (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Stephen Lacey, U.S. Coal Generation Drops 19 Percent In One Year, Leaving Coal With 36 Percent Share Of Electricity, ThinkProgress.org, May 14, 2012, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/05/14/483432/us-coal-generation-drops-19-percent-in-one-year-leaving-coal-with-36-percent-share-of-electricity/?mobile=nc (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 David Suzuki, What’s the Fracking Problem With Natural Gas?, ecowatch.org, Sept. 12, 2012, http://ecowatch.org/2012/whats-the-fracking-problem-with-natural-gas/ (last visited Dec. 24, 2012). The Oil and Gas Commission in British Columbia, Canada, found that at least 38 earthquakes in northeastern British Columbia over the past few years were caused by hydraulic fracturing. See also Canadian Press, Fracking Causes Minor Earthquakes, B.C. Regulator Says, CBC.ca, Sept. 6, 2012, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2012/09/06/bc-fracking-earthquakes.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Leah McDonnell, Germany Leads With Wind Power, Deutsche Welle, Oct. 26, 2006, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,2214648,00.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 The Climate Group, In the Black: The Growth of the Low Carbon Economy 7, 12 (May 2007). See also Robert Collier, Germany Shines a Beam on the Future of Energy, San Francisco Chron., Dec. 20, 2004.
 Germany Plans 30 Offshore Wind Farms, Spiegel Online, July 7, 2008, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,564274,00.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Charles Clover, Windfarms to Power a Third of London Homes, The Telegraph, Dec. 20, 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml;jsessionid=bmryvnckzptcnqfiqmgsffoavcbqwiv0?xml=/news/2006/12/19/nwind19.xml (last visited Dec. 24, 2012); Laura Cohn et al., Wind Power Has a Head of Steam, Business Week, July 10, 2005, http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2005-07-10/wind-power-has-a-head-of-steam (last visited Dec. 27, 2012).
 Worldwatch Institute, China Leads Growth in Global Wind Power Capacity (May 30, 2012), available at http://www.worldwatch.org/china-leads-growth-global-wind-power-capacity.
 New Record: Wind Powers 40 Percent of Spain, MetaEfficient.com, Mar. 26, 2008.
 Carol Matlack, Portugal Makes Waves in Alternative Energy, BusinessWeek.com, May 3, 2006, http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/may2006/gb20060503_258443.htm?campaign_id=eu_May10&link_position=link24 (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Steve Jacobs, Farming for Energy, BusinessWeek.com, Sept. 7, 2006, http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/sep2006/gb20060906_293690.htm (last visited Dec. 24, 2012); Barnaby Feder, Alternative Energy: A Small But Growing Option, Int’l Herald Trib., May 29–30, 2004.
 EU Wind Power Capacity Reaches 100GW, United Press Int’l, Oct. 1, 2012, http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Energy-Resources/2012/10/01/EU-wind-power-capacity-reaches-100GW/UPI-52431349087400/ (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 China’s On-Grid Wind Power Capacity Grows, China Daily, Aug. 16, 2012, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2012-08/16/content_15680451.htm (last visited Dec. 24, 2012); U.S. Reaches 50 GW of Wind Energy Capacity in Q2 of 2012, Clean Technica, Aug. 10, 2012, http://cleantechnica.com/2012/08/10/us-reaches-50-gw-of-wind-energy-capacity-in-q2-of-2012/ (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Robert Collier, Germany Shines a Beam on the Future of Energy, San Francisco Chron., Dec. 20, 2004.
 Statistic Brain, Solar Energy Statistics, citing the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Ecoworld, July 26, 2012, http://www.statisticbrain.com/solar-energy-statistics (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
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 Margot Roosevelt, Bill Heats Up Talk of Solar Water Systems, L.A. Times, May 29, 2007.
 The Climate Group, supra note 12.
 Jane Burgermeister, Renewable Energy Jobs Soar in Germany, RenewableEnergyWorld.com, Apr. 8, 2008, http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/story?id=52089 (last visited Dec. 24, 2012); German Environment Minister Wants to Triple ‘Renewables’, Deutsche Welle, Feb. 27, 2007, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,2366959,00.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 McDonnell, supra note 11; The Climate Group, supra note 12.
 Alvaro Sanchez, Solúcar: Renewable Energy Platform in Andalusia, EU Debate 2009, July 16, 2008, http://www.eudebate2009.eu/eng/article/25586/trans-solucar-el-sol-es-el-futuro.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Harvesting the Tides in Northern Ireland, Deutsche Welle, Sept. 6, 2011, http://www.dw.de/harvesting-the-tides-in-northern-ireland/a-15367426 (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 UK Approves World’s Biggest Biomass Power Plant, Reuters, Nov. 21, 2007.
 Douglas Fischer, Denmark Paves Way for Freedom From Big Oil, Oakland Trib., June 5, 2006.
 Ami Sedghi, Renewable Energy in the EU: Which Countries Are Set to Reach Their Targets?, The Guardian, June 19, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/jun/19/renewable-energy-consumption-eu-targets (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Press Release, National Resources Defense Council, New Report Ranks World’s Biggest Countries on Renewable Energy (June 11, 2012), http://www.nrdc.org/media/2012/120611.asp. See also Clean Technica, New Report Ranks World’s Biggest Countries on Renewable Energy, citing the National Resources Defense Council Report, June 12, 2012, http://cleantechnica.com/2012/06/12/new-report-ranks-worlds-biggest-countries-on-renewable-energy/ (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
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 Germany to Massively Invest in Energy Sector, Deutsche Welle, Apr. 4, 2006, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,1953512,00.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012); World Business Council for Sustainable Development, German Firms to Step Up Renewables Spending, Env’t Daily, Apr. 4, 2006, http://www.wbcsd.org/plugins/DocSearch/details.asp?type=DocDet&ObjectId=MTg2ODQ (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Alok Jha, ‘Wave Snakes’ Switch on to Harness Ocean’s Power, The Guardian, Sept. 24 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/sep/24/renewable.wave.energy.portugal (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Off the coast of Wales, a Danish company has deployed a “wave dragon” that scoops water into a basin and then releases it through outlets with turbines that spin and generate electricity. Paul Davidson, Marine Energy Can Be Forecast, USAToday.com, Apr. 18, 2007, http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2007–04–18-wave-power_N.htm (last visited Dec. 24, 2012). See also Mike Remmert, The 1.5 Liter Car Is Here! 100 Kilometers With 1.5 Liters or 157 Miles a Gallon: German Engineering Does the Trick, German World, June 2007, http://www.german-world.com/articles/e_200706_Car.htm (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Kevin Morrison, Fears for Growth Push Energy Efficiency Up Global Political Agenda, Fin. Times, Sept. 27, 2005.
 Lisa Margonelli, Myths About That $3.18 Per Gallon, Wash. Post, June 3, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/01/AR2007060101838_3.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012). The United States has not always ignored conservation and energy efficiency. Today it uses 43% less energy and 50% less oil per dollar of real GDP than it did in 1975, which explains why the U.S. economy has been able to weather paying escalating prices per barrel of oil.
 Farrell et al., supra note 4.
 Press Release, The Climate Group, The Climate Group Partners With HSBC on US$100 Million Programme to Combat Climate Change World-Wide,” May 30, 2007, http://theclimategroup.org/index.php/news_and_events/news_and_comment/the_climate_group_partners_with_hsbc_on_us100_million_programme_to_combat_c/ (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Mike Davis, Home-Front Ecology: What Our Grandparents Can Teach Us About Saving the World, Sierra Magazine, July–Aug. 2007; Stan Cox, Big Houses Are Not Green: America’s McMansion Problem, AlterNet.org, Sept. 8, 2007, http://www.alternet.org/environment/61523 (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 The Climate Group, supra note 12.
 Helena Spongenberg, EU Could Ban Incandescent Bulbs, BusinessWeek.com, June 22, 2007, http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/jun2007/gb20070622_706666.htm?chan=globalbiz_europe+index+page_energy+%2Bamp%3B+environment (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Farrell et al., supra note 4; Cogen Europe, What Is Cogeneration, http://www.cogen.org/about/what_is_CHP.htm (last visited Dec. 24, 2012); see also UNEP Division of Technology, Industry and Economics—Energy and Ozone Action Unit, Cogeneration, available at http://www.cogen.org/Downloadables/Publications/Fact_Sheet_CHP.pdf.
 Leila Abboud, How Denmark Paved Way to Energy Independence, Wall Street J., Apr. 16, 2007.
 Thomas Casten & Phillip Schewe, Getting the Most From Energy, Am. Scientist, Jan.-Feb. 2009, at 30-31, fig. 5 and fig. 7.
 Elisabeth Rosenthal, No Furnaces But Heat Aplenty in ‘Passive Houses, N.Y. Times, Dec. 26, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/27/world/europe/27house.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Sara Kugler, 16 Cities to Go Green Under Clinton Plan, Associated Press, May 16, 2007.
 The Rise of the Green Building, Econ. Tech. Q., Dec. 4, 2004, at 17.
 Drawing on Energy in a ‘Passive’ Way, Deutsche Welle, Jan. 16, 2003, http://www.dw-world.de/english/0,3367,1430_A_751589,00.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 The Rise of the Green Building, supra note 51, at 18.
 Gwladys Fouché, Sweden’s Carbon-Tax Solution to Climate Change Puts It Top of the Green List, The Guardian, Apr. 29, 2008.
 Nicolai Ouroussoff, Why Are They Greener Than We Are?, N.Y. Times, May 20, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/20/magazine/20europe-t.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Kugler, supra note 50.
 Ouroussoff, supra note 56.
 Farrell et al., supra note 4, at 34.
 Ouroussoff, supra note 56.
 The Climate Group, supra note 12, at 20.
 Lorne Cook, EU Seal Deals on Economy, Climate Packages, Agence France-Presse, Dec. 12, 2008.
 Jad Mouawad, The Big Thirst, N.Y. Times, Apr. 20, 2008 (see graphic), http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2008/04/20/weekinreview/20mouawad-graphic-1.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 France Launches New High-Speed Trains, Int’l Bus. Times, June 10, 2007.
 Steve Jacobs, High-Speed Trains of Europe, BusinessWeek.com, June 13, 2006, http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/jun2006/gb20060613_790699.htm?campaign_id=eu_Jun20&link_position=link30 (last visited Dec. 24, 2012); and Steve Jacobs, Europe on a Fast Track, BusinessWeek.com, June 13, 2006, http://images.businessweek.com/ss/06/06/fasttrains/index_01.htm (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Christian Wüst, Is France’s Energy-Guzzling TGV Prototype the Right Answer?, Spiegel Online, Apr. 4, 2007, http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,475641,00.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Jacobs, Europe on a Fast Track, supra note 65.
 European Commission, The Social Situation in the European Union (May 22, 2002), cited in Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream 75 (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin 2004).
 Setting the Target, supra note 5.
 John M. Broder, A Power Duo, Dingells Battle on Two Fronts, N.Y. Times, Nov. 15, 2008.
 Ken Livingstone, Congestion: Europe at a Crossroads, E!Sharp, Feb. 2004, at 12; Stockholm Voters Approve Contentious Traffic Congestion Toll, Associated Press, Sept. 18, 2006; The Greening of Paris, Ode Magazine, http://odemagazine.com/news.php?nID=524 (last visited Dec. 24, 2012); Neal Peirce, London’s Gearing Traffic Move: Successful, But Right for Us?, Wash. Post Writers Group, May 18, 2003.
 Martin LaMonica, Better Place Denmark to Plug Electric Cars by 2011, cnet.com, Jan. 27, 2009, http://news.cnet.com/8301-11128_3-10150716-54.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Brian Reisinger, “Nissan opens $1B Smyrna battery plant,” Nashville Business Journal, December 12, 2012, www.bizjournals.com/nashville/news/2012/12/12/nissan-leaf-smyrna-franklin-tennessee.html. Retrieved on January 7, 2013.
 John Voelcker, Five Real-World Facts About Electric Cars, Rocky Mountain Institute, June 27, 2012, http://blog.rmi.org/blog_Five_Real_World_Facts_AboutElectric_Cars (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Christopher Knight, New Alchemy: Grass Into Fuel, Int’l Herald Trib., Sept. 18, 2006, at 12.
 Farrell et al., supra note 4, at 44.
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 John Pucher, Ph.D., and Lewis Dijkstra, Ph.D., Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health: Lessons From the Netherlands and Germany, 93:9 Am. J. Pub Health 1509-16 (Sept. 2003); see also John Pucher & Lewis Dijkstra, Making Walking and Cycling Safer: Lessons From Europe, Department of Urban Planning, Rutgers University, Feb. 2000, available at http://www.vtpi.org/puchertq.pdf.
 Angelique Chrisafis, The City’s Gone Cycling Mad, The Guardian, Aug. 16, 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/aug/16/ethicalliving.france (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Some have proposed that shopping malls are the new town square, but malls exist mostly for a single purpose—to shop. Other activities, whether political, theatrical, or social (except for teenagers hanging out), are actively discouraged, making malls a negation of the multiple purposes served by European plazas.
 Other traffic-calming features include speed humps, pedestrian refuges or small islands in the middle of the street, pedestrian zones created by closing streets to auto traffic, cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets created by closing intersections, reduced speed limits near institutions such as schools and hospitals, and vehicle-activated signs that react with a message if they detect a vehicle exceeding a particular speed, among others.
 Robert P. Walzer, A Driving Force to Change Paris, Int’l Herald Trib., Jan. 23, 2009, http://www.iht.com/articles/2009/01/22/business/wbspot24.1-411196.php (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Brad Plumer, “What we can learn from Europe’s cap-and-trade system,” Washington Post, October 17, 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/10/17/what-we-can-learn-from-europes-cap-and-trade-system/. Retrieved January 7, 2013.
 Fouché, supra note 55.
 Elisabeth Rosenthal, Europe Turns to Coal Again, Raising Alarms on Climate Change, N.Y. Times, Apr. 23, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/europe/23coal.html (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Pierre Noël, Beyond Dependence: How to Deal with Russian Gas, European Council on Foreign Relations, Nov. 2008, available at http://ecfr.eu/page/-/documents/Russia-gas-policy-brief.pdf.
 David Charter, Power Supergrid Plan to Protect Europe From Russian Threat to Choke Off Energy, Times of London, Nov. 13, 2008, http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/natural_resources/article5142622.ece (last visited Dec. 24, 2012).
 Fouché, supra note 55.
 See Ballot Access News, published by the nation’s foremost authority on minor parties, Richard Winger.
 Clifford Krauss, Oil Is So Last-Century: Now Wind’s the Thing, Int’l Herald Trib., Feb. 25, 2008, at 15.
 Peter Foster, India to Shun G8 Demands on Gas Emissions, The Telegraph, May 30, 2007.
 Carsten Volkery, Europe Takes the Lead in Fighting Climate Change, Spiegel Online, Mar. 9, 2007, http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,470926,00.html (last visited Dec. 21, 2012). The energy mix includes power for electricity, heat, transportation, and other uses. The percentage of renewable energy sources does not include hydropower produced by large power dams. See American Energy: The Renewable Path to Social Security, Worldwatch Institute, Center for American Progress, Sept. 2006, at 7, available at http://images1.americanprogress.org/il80web20037/americanenergynow/AmericanEnergy.pdf.
 Kevin Morrison, Fears for Growth Push Energy Efficiency Up Global Political Agenda, Fin. Times, Sept. 27, 2005; Janet Wilson, U.S. Emits Half of Car-Caused Greenhouse Gas, Study Says, L.A. Times, June 28, 2006.
 Central Intelligence Agency, Country Comparison: Electricity—Consumption, The World Factbook 2012, http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2042rank.html (last visited Dec. 21, 2012).
 Kenneth Chang, As Earth Warms, the Hottest Issue Is Energy, N.Y. Times, Nov. 4, 2003; Diana Farrell et al., Curbing Global Energy Demand Growth: The Energy Productivity Opportunity, McKinsey Global Institute, May 2007, at 30. Also see the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Indicators, which lists the United States as having more than twice the per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions as either Germany, the United Kingdom, or Japan, more than three times the emissions of France or Sweden, six times greater than those of China, and 17 times greater than India’s. http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Data.aspx.
 Setting the Target, The Economist, Feb. 8, 2007, http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_ID=8670957 (last visited Dec. 21, 2012). The average engine capacity in the United States is 3.4 liters, compared with 1.8 liters in Germany and Britain, 1.7 in France, and 1.6 in Italy.