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Environment

Germans' carbon footprints are shrinking

Germany's transition to renewable energy sources has helped it reduce household carbon dioxide output over the last decade. CO2 tied to individual consumption accounts for much of countries' overall emissions.

Pollutants from a diesel car's exhaust pip

From what they drive to how they heat their homes, Germans are cutting household CO2 emissions

Per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in Germany dropped between 2008 and 2009 according to the latest figures, released by the Federal Statistics Office on Monday.

Direct and indirect CO2 emissions from private households in Germany last year totaled 618 million tons - or an average of 7.5 tons per person.

Though the 0.1 ton decrease over last year's figure constitutes a small reduction, individual emissions have dropped by about 5 percent since 2000.

"The decrease is certainly viewed as positive," Helmut Mayer, an analyst with the Federal Statistics Office, told Deutsche Welle in an email.

Mayer said German households had already cut their energy consumption considerably. Home heating and the use of petrol for cars are forms of "direct" emissions, which totaled some 216 million tons for 2009. Overall, direct CO2 output by German households sank by nearly 7 percent between 2000 and 2009.

As to whether that trend would continue, Mayer pointed to Germany's focus on clean power sources: "Domestically, the expansion of renewable energies will lead to net savings," Mayer told Deutsche Welle.

An industrial complex in Lower Saxony, Germany

Indirect emissions are associated with the production of consumer products

Not just a drop in the bucket

Germany's latest figures on household emissions come on the heels of United Nations climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, which ended with a compromise agreement early Saturday morning.

CO2 output due to household consumption is an important part of countries' total greenhouse gas output – a statistic calculated based on countries' overall emissions levels.

Individuals and households are responsible for 72 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Edgar Hertwich, professor of industrial ecology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Hertwich, who was involved in the prestigious "Carbon Footprint of Nations" research project that analyzed global CO2 emissions, told Deutsche Welle that public consumption and investments in resources like roads and new buildings accounted for the remainder of the emissions total.

While he praised Germany's Federal Statistics Office for taking on the topic of individual emissions, he said the reductions noted in Germany were "surprising".

"They actually contradict what we have seen from other countries in Europe," Hertwich said, citing Norway and the United Kingdom as examples of countries whose carbon footprints are growing. There, substantial increases in imports from toys to TV sets - especially goods produced in developing countries - has led to corresponding increases in individual emissions.

'Indirect', consumption-related emissions measured in Germany in 2009 included the output associated with the production of goods - both at home and abroad - used by German households. This figure accounted for the bulk of Germany's total CO2 output for individuals, with 402 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted last year.

"I would like to see the methods that were used to calculate those numbers," Hertwich added.

Overall, carbon dioxide output associated with the production of consumer products dropped by 4.3 percent between 2000 and last year.

Solar energy devices in Germany

Expansion of renewable energy sources has helped Germany cut emissions

The trends behind the trend

Changing consumer habits were largely responsible for the reported reductions, despite the fact that household consumption has increased overall. Germans were reportedly buying fewer tangible products and more services, which typically have a reduced carbon footprint compared to manufactured goods.

The German Federal Statistics Office report credited more consumers switching to cars with diesel engines for part of the drop in direct emissions, while the move to natural gas from oil fuel helped slash heating-related CO2 output.

But Germany's transition to carbon-neutral and other environmentally friendly sources of power has also played a major role. About half of all CO2 emissions related to the production of consumer goods are linked to energy generation. The report said the country had increased its share of power won from renewable sources by nearly 10 percent between 2000 and 2009.

Hertwich praised Germany as "one of the pioneers in renewable energy production," but said achieving global emissions reductions targets would require "a substantial decrease" in greenhouse gas output - which could only be achieved with a carbon-free electricity sector and smart transportation solutions.

German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen has called on Europe to lead the way on that front, saying reductions are key to fulfilling the international community's efforts to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2020.

"Europe will only maintain its leading role in climate protection if we resolve to move forward and reduce our emissions by 30 percent over 1990 levels by 2020," he told the German daily Rheinische Post in an interview published on Monday.

Author: Amanda Price (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Sophie Tarr

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