Warum verbrauchen wir nicht weniger Energie und nutzen grüneren Strom?

05.01.21 The residential consumption conundrum Charlotte Meyer • 5 min.

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Summary

Germany coined the term “energy transition” (“Energiewende”), has a strong green mainstream, and is an ambitious, early mover in decarbonization. Yet in 2018 its households still used about as much energy as they did in 1990 (heat consumption declined somewhat, but fuel and electricity consumption remained fairly constant). How is this apparent contradiction possible?

Households account for just over a quarter of Germany’s total final energy consumption. Like in most countries, in Germany income level covaries with education credentials. But having a high income, more diplomas, and perhaps greater environmental awareness doesn’t necessarily make one a conservationist: the richer people in Germany are the more energy they generally consume. Low-income households, by contrast, have fewer opportunities to consume a lot of energy.

Too cozy?

The German Environment Agency reports that space heating makes up more than two-thirds of households’ final energy consumption. According to a study by University of Hamburg sociology professor Dr. Anita Engels, most people are unaware of where the energy for their heat comes from and how much they use. Many base their decisions on individual perceptions of comfort, not on whether their home is heated by natural gas, fuel oil, or a heat pump. Owners of apartment buildings are generally more concerned about energy consumption than their tenants. They’re also are in a better position to do something about it by reinsulating roofs and walls, replacing old and inefficient boilers, and making other energy upgrades.

Powering up?

Since 2015 the proportion of households in Germany who select green electricity tariffs has risen steadily. About 12.7 million had such a tariff in 2019, just under 25% of the total. But households’ carbon emissions have hardly changed. In 2017 German households were responsible for just under 95 million metric tons of carbon emissions, about the same as in 2005. Why? Because even though electronic devices are becoming increasingly energy efficient, people use more of them, which cancels out the energy savings. There’s also the rebound effect: when people buy an energy-smart product (LED lighting, an electric car), they tend to use it more. Moreover, according to Dr. Engels’s study, few people actually know which appliances and devices are the biggest energy guzzlers and how to use them more efficiently.

Green youth

A survey conducted in 2019 by the German Environment Agency found that environmental and climate protection is a very important issue for 81% of 14- to 22-year-olds compared with 67% for people older than 23. Today’s young people are tomorrow’s heads of household. If they put their environmental consciousness into practice, it could, over time, reduce Germany’s household energy consumption.

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