4 Nations Happier than the U.S., With Half the Carbon Emissions


Denmark is one happy country. Photo via Flickr.

Although it may come as a surprise, research shows a larger carbon footprint doesn't lead to happiness. While the United States ranks near the top of both per capita and aggregate carbon emissions, it's not in the top 10 when it comes to happiness. In fact, many nations ranked happier than the U.S. also tread much more lightly on the planet. Read on to find out where the U.S.'s carbon emissions come from and which countries are doing it right.

per capita emissions versus happiness chart image

This chart, focusing on 10 countries, was created by taking data from the World Values Survey (the orange lines) and comparing it against per capita carbon emissions (the green lines). It's worth noting that all of these places perceive themselves as happy--and with the exception of El Salvador and Colombia have equal or better living standards--with a much lower carbon footprint.

The United States: The Love Affair With The Open Road

dallas freeway photo

photo: David Herrera via flickr

Though the U.S. doesn't have the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world, it's pretty close to the top at roughly 20.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide on average per person. It should be noted that the recession is currently reducing this figure, and that it is the national average, meaning some states have much lower emissions: New York and California for example. Others, such as Wyoming and Louisiana (due to the types of industry there more than anything else) have much higher emissions.

In terms of the Human Development Index, the U.S. does pretty well (15th in the world). Life expectancy is a healthy 78 years and 99% of people are literate.

The U.S. not only uses a lot of energy--2.3 million thousand tonnes of oil equivalent, a weird term, but that's what the IEA uses--but also generates most of its electricity from coal (48%=bad) and natural gas (20%=less bad but not good); and uses a disproportionate amount of energy in the transport sector when compared to other nations.

Breaking down U.S. energy use by sector, the U.S. uses 41% of all its energy for transportation (nearly all oil), 18% by industry (mostly natural gas), 16% in residential used (mostly electricity and slightly less natural gas). The rest goes to commercial and public service use, a whole array of unspecified use, and a mere 1% in agriculture, fishing and forestry.

Compare that to Denmark and at least part of the reason why U.S. per capita emissions are so high becomes clear. The way the nation's civic infrastructure has been constructed (large spaces, low density development and next to no public transportation) directly leads to a higher percentage of energy needed for transport.

1. Denmark: Lower Emissions, Higher Happiness

copenhagen bikes photo
photo: Matthew McDermott

Denmark is widely hailed as an increasingly green place. It certainly generates a lot of electricity from wind power, has great public transit, and, apart from the weather, is a great place to bike or walk around. It has identical life expectancy and literacy figures to the U.S. and ranks higher than the U.S. in terms of human development. So how are the carbon emissions of the average Dane less half those of the average American at 9.8 tonnes of CO2 per person?

Denmark is such a small country that a comparison of the overall amount of energy it generates isn't particularly informative. But where that energy is used and how it is generated is.

Transport still is the number one consumer of energy in Denmark, and like the U.S., most of it comes from oil. Yet the Danes use only 34% of their total energy on transport--statistically more in line with the rest of the world, by the way. Following that is residential usage at 28% (with heat coming from biomass and natural gas being most of that); industry is the third place sector at 18%. Commercial usage is identical and agricultural usage more than the United States.

In terms of electricity usage, more coal is used in Denmark than the U.S. (54%), but 22% comes from wind power and biomass. Combined with the fact that Denmark uses energy much more efficiently per capita, you can start to see how Danes can have higher human development, standards of living and, well, happiness.

It should be noted, though, that improvements can still be made. One needs only to move south to Switzerland to see that.

Discover more nations happier than the U.S., with half the carbon emissions on page 2.

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