CO2 Emissions from Daily Travel: A Comparison of Germany and the U.S.

October 12, 2012

On October 12, 2012, the American-German Institute (AGI) hosted a presentation on “CO2 Emissions from Daily Travel: A Comparison of Germany and the U.S.” Dr. Ralph Buehler, DAAD/AGI Fellow, discussed his research regarding the difference in levels of CO2 emissions in the two countries and factors which contribute to it. The event was generously supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Dr. Buehler began by explaining the similarities that make a comparison of Germany and the United States relevant. Both countries have strong economies, high standards of living, similar governments, and infrastructure and development conducive to driving. They also both place a great deal of importance on cars, driving, and the automobile industry.

The presentation then proceeded to compare trends in motorization and CO2 emissions in each of the countries over the last twenty years. Both the amount of fuel used per kilometer traveled and the number of kilometers traveled per trip contribute to the total amount of CO2 released by a vehicle during daily travel. In general, Dr. Buehler found that Americans drive more than their German counterparts, in terms of kilometers traveled in cars and percentage of trips taken by car, at every income level and population density, and in both urban and rural environments.

There are many factors that contribute to the difference between Americans and Germans with respect to car use. Dr. Buehler identified policy differences including taxes and regulations which increase the cost of owning and operating a car in Germany; fewer incentives for walking and cycling in the United States; and stricter fuel standards and fuel standard goals for German automobiles. Though the United States enacted the world’s first fuel efficiency standards, the standards of the European Union quickly bypassed those of the US. By 2020, the EU aims to bring automobile CO2 emissions to below 100 g/km, while the standard goal for the US is 144 g/km for the same year.

In the United States, the number of cars owned per household, in comparison to the number of household members of driving age, is greater than in Germany, and as a result, American households spend on average $2,500 more annually on transportation than their German counterparts.

The more desirable and efficient public transportation systems in German cities also contribute to lower car use. Dr. Buehler spoke about Germany’s aim of integrating regional transport systems to assure “seamless transfers” across operators and transport modes in order to improve quality of use. By contrast, public transportation requires more subsidies in the United States because of lower rider capacity and a decreased willingness by American to pay for public transportation services. In Germany, 65% of operating costs are covered by rider fares, as opposed to just 25% in the United States.

Finally, the presentation addressed the use of bikes as an alternative method of transportation, which is far more popular in Germany than in the United States. The German driving laws favor bicyclists and pedestrians over drivers, and children are taught from a young age how to ride bikes as a form of transportation, rather than solely as a recreational activity, as in the US.

Dr. Buehler’s presentation provided insights into transportation habits in the United States and Germany and the impact they are having on the environment via CO2 emissions. This information will become even more important as scientists and policymakers work to fight the effects of global warming in the future.

Please contact Kimberly Frank with any questions at