Germans who own a car can't avoid the fact that 65 cents ($0.80) of every euro that goes into their fuel tank flows into state coffers in the form of various energy taxes. It may be a high price to pay in a country that prides itself on its environmentally-friendly policies.
But according to Tanja Loitz of Climate Seeks Protection, a program supported by the German Environment Ministry, there are ways to help the environment and save money at the same time.
"Most people do not know that most household CO2 emissions come from heating," she said, explaining why one of the campaign's goals is to reduce the 120 million tons of annual household CO2 emissions. "There is not a lack of interest in the environment, but a lack of factual knowledge."
Raising awareness by saving money
If the numerous recycling programs across the country are any indication, Germans already tend to be an environmentally-conscious bunch. In fact, 74 percent of Germans rate protecting the environment as very important, according to a recent study conducted by pollster Forsa. At the same time, most of those surveyed were of different opinions when it came to the question of what could be done about it.
"Consumers certainly find the topic interesting, but are only willing to become involved in small degrees if it affects their wallets," said Moritz Lehmkuhl, head of Climate Partner, an organization that tries to raise awareness of climate change among businesses and the public. "The idea that they should save money and shop for bargains still dominates among consumers."
Who should be held responsible?
He agreed with Loitz on the importance of individual participation if there is a chance of achieving the Kyoto Protocol's goals of reducing greenhouse gasses by 5 percent of 1990 levels before 2012, and that the best way to get people's attention is by saying it will save them money.
Environmental groups also say that minimizing monetary concerns is an effective way of changing daily habits. But some would like to see the government make polluting more costly instead of relying on people to be voluntarily more concerned about their surroundings.
"People who voluntarily take part are already very environmentally conscious and think about their actions," said Markus Steigenberger of Friends of the Earth Germany. "I do not think voluntary action programs have a large effect on the general population."
The alternative of legal coercion, however, is not an effective way to make people responsible for their actions, Lehmkuhl argued.
"Taxes have a negative aftertaste, and with voluntary initiatives you can achieve something extra," he said. "It is important to show that people can personally do something."
Climate Partner recommends consumers make online purchases through Climate Friends, a portal that invests sales commissions -- exactly how much depends on company specific deals -- in sustainable, climate-neutral projects around the world.
Legislation more effective
Steinberger of Friends of the Earth said that people who actually use these services to make up for the 11 tons of CO2 the average German produces annually are doing the right thing and added that raising environmental awareness is crucial. At the same time, legislation is the best way to help the environment, he said.
"We need defined goals and legislation that lets business and people act in a climate-friendly way and makes pollution expensive," Steinberger said.
Climate Seeks Protection's Loitz suggests that the most effective laws would focus on rewarding those who prevent pollution rather than doling out punishments for those who cause it.
While environmental groups continue work to get stricter laws enacted and enforced, and Climate Seeks Protection and Climate Partner continue their voluntary programs, all the groups maintain that increasing the environmental consciousness that keeps greenhouse gasses from being produced is necessary. There is, after all, no way to get CO2 back in the bottle once it's emitted.