Representative survey of the per-capita consumption of natural resources in Germany

Kamin, Heizung, Ressourcen, Dächer
Photo: Stephanie Moser, CDE


  • This study comprehensively estimates the per capita natural resource use of the German population. It places particular emphasis on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Per capita calculation makes it possible to identify deviations in consumption between different population groups, and to offer corresponding explanations based on demographic, psychological, and motivational factors.
  • Wealthier population groups consume disproportionately more natural resources than those with lower incomes. Greater environmental awareness does not make up for this income effect.

Private consumption patterns and lifestyles must change to cut down on use of natural resources

Consumption of natural resources in industrialized countries, and increasingly in emerging economies, has reached the point where it clearly exceeds the ability of natural ecosystems to absorb impacts and adequately regenerate. A considerable proportion of natural resource consumption may be attributed to private households. Thus, in the context of sustainable development, fostering necessary change in people’s lifestyles and private consumption is a high priority. To this end, it is critical to identify the areas of consumption exerting the greatest influence, the population groups displaying the highest use, and the factors that explain observed differences in consumption between population groups.

Determining per capita consumption and explaining differences

Focused on Germany, this study sought to determine per capita consumption of natural resources among the German population, to identify population groups that deviate substantially from the average, and to explain observed differences according to socio-demographic, psychological, and motivational factors. Its primary focus was on energy consumption and corresponding emissions of greenhouse gases. In over 1,000 comprehensive, face-to-face interviews, participants were surveyed in detail about diverse consumption activities in the areas of home energy use, mobility, everyday consumption, and financial investments. These were weighted using data from lifecycle analyses, enabling calculation of corresponding per capita consumption. The results were sorted and considered in relation to various socio-demographic and motivational factors. The results were also evaluated in terms of their representativeness of the German population.

Wealthier population groups bear the most responsibility

People’s socio-economic status, above all their income, is the single most important factor explaining their resource use and greenhouse gas emissions. Depending on the area of consumption, however, other factors such as people’s age, sex, and geographic region also play a role, albeit smaller, in explaining use.

Environmental awareness does not guarantee a resource-saving lifestyle

Examination of people’s environmental awareness produces ambivalent results. Eco-conscious people own more energy-efficient electronic devices and more frequently purchase organically produced food and clothing. But they live in bigger homes, drive longer distances in personal vehicles, and seldom refrain from airline travel; these are all consumptive activities with particularly negative impacts on natural resources, with the result that those who consider themselves environmentally aware display a negative net environmental impact. Put differently, environmentally aware individuals try to practice an eco-friendly lifestyle, but do so in areas that play a relatively small role in their overall resource consumption.

Funding: German Environment Agency, Dessau-Rosslau, Germany UFOPLAN 3713 17 311

Project duration: 2013–2016

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