Higher income earners usually have higher climate-impact lifestyles

"Blind spots" in mobility and living are common

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Income and personal consumption greatly influence consumption of the environment.
Source: photo 5000 / Fotolia.com

People with higher incomes usually consume more energy and resources – regardless of whether they perceive themselves to be environmentally aware or not. These are the findings of a new study by the German Environment Agency (UBA). UBA's President Maria Krautzberger said: "The surplus income is all too often spent on large cars, larger homes and more frequent air travel, even despite otherwise environmentally conscious behaviour. But it is precisely these 'big points' which have the biggest human carbon footprint. The purchase of organic foods or a high level of waste separation do not offset this."

Long-distance flights, cars, the quality of the insulation and size of the home, and meat consumption are the deciding factors which classify someone in a group above or below the average consumption of material resources. The study reports that this is why people with high levels of environmental awareness do not necessarily leave a light carbon footprint. In contrast, of all the groups studied, those from more modest social milieus and whose self-perception is to be the least efficient in terms of resource protection, and who also have a rather low level of environmental awareness, put the least strain on the environment of all groups.

Those with a higher level of environmental awareness may have more energy-efficient household appliance or buy more organic food products and often eat less meat. They also tend to agree with environmental policy measures more readily than those with lower levels of awareness. But they often underestimate or even fail to consider other aspects of their (un)sustainable consumption, for example long-distance holiday travels, and overall they generate more CO2 emissions than people in the lower income groups.

The study (in German) also points out that higher income and a higher level of environmental awareness can in fact result in a good eco-balance. One example is the group of "conscious average consumers", one of the energy consumer types identified in the study. In this case higher income and a higher level of environmental awareness go hand in hand with lower levels of energy consumption. This is because the people in this consumer group practice environmentally friendly consumption when it comes to the "big points". There is great potential to conserve and protect the climate and resources by carrying out energy upgrade measures in buildings and neighbourhoods, purchasing low-emission cars, car sharing or eating little meat. Investments in renewable energy and voluntary offset payments for long-distance flights are also some ways for consumers to save tonnes of CO2.

The study has created the first representative data set for Germany which analyses the consumption of resources and energy and CO2 emissions according to types of consumption and social milieu. The role which income and consumption patterns in particular play are proved to be an important influence on consumption of the environment.

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