Which is the greener gender?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Nov. 16 2010 6:54 AM

Man vs. Woman vs. Planet

Who's worse for the environment: Me or my girlfriend?

Man driving a sports car.
Men, who drive frequently, have a larger carbon footprint than women

Lantern, help me settle a bet with my girlfriend. Who's greener, men or women? She says women, because they're not so car-obsessed, but I say guys, because we shop so much less. So who's right?

Sociologists would probably call this one for your lady friend: There's a long history of research that indicates women are the greener gender—at least when it comes to their attitudes and preferences. Since the 1980s, most studies have found that women are somewhat more likely to express concern about environmental issues than men are, particularly when the issues are local and threaten people's health and safety. A recent analysis (PDF) of Gallup Poll data from 2001 to 2008 also found that women take climate change more seriously: They were more likely  to say they worried about global warming "a great deal," that they believed it would threaten their way of life during their lifetimes, and that the news media underestimates the seriousness of the problem.

But before my sisters start doing a victory lap, note that women only outpaced men by six to nine percentage points on any given Gallup question. Plus, greater concern doesn't necessarily translate into greater knowledge: Another recent survey found that American men and women were equally (and woefully) misguided about the amount of energy used or saved by various activities.

So women might have greener hearts—but which gender is eco-friendlier in practice? There have been fewer studies on that topic, but they too give a slight edge to women, largely based on driving habits. When Norwegian researchers examined the data from a 10-country OECD survey on environmental behavior, for example, they found that gender didn't have a strong effect on the number of measures a person took to save energy and water or on their recycling habits. Single and married men, however, did drive much more than their female counterparts. (The same case is true for Americans.) In married households, though, men may be shuttling their wives around, making those allocations more complicated.

Swedish researchers recently corroborated these findings by analyzing household expenditures in four European countries—how many Euros each gender spent on everything from gasoline and electricity to food and clothing—and how those expenditures contribute to energy use. They found that singlemen used more energy than singlewomen in Greece and Sweden, while gender had a statistically insignificant effect in Norway and Germany.

Men used more energy in part because they spent more money overall, but their buying patterns mattered, too. Again, transportation was key. Men consistently used much more energy than women did on vehicles and fuel—between 23 and 32 gigajoules more per year. (Total energy consumption ranged from 105 gigajoules for Swedish women to 313 gigajoules for Norwegian men.) In the categories where women outspent men (like food, hygiene, and health), the differences in energy consumption were much smaller—five gigajoules or fewer per category. In an expanded report (PDF), the researchers calculated that single men in Sweden were each responsible for about 2.2 metric tons more carbon dioxide emissions than their single Swedish sisters. That's about as much as the average American car emits in five months

The Lantern was curious to see if the same patterns applied to American men and women, so she enlisted the help of Christopher Weber, an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon who specializes in this kind of economic-based environmental analysis. Weber ran some quick-and-dirty spreadsheet calculations, using spending data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' most recent Consumer Expenditure Survey and greenhouse gas figures fromCarnegie Mellon's 2002 Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment model.

The final result: The average single woman in this country is responsible for 30 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e); the average single man, 32 tons. (The average American—including children and married adults—generates 23 tons of CO2e, according to earlier estimates by Weber.) As with the European study, the most significant difference between the genders came in the transport category: Single men's driving habits have a carbon footprint of 13 metric tons of CO2e, compared with women's 9.4 tons. After that, the most important differences, from a greenhouse gas perspective, were that single women spent more on home utilities and health care, and single men spent more on alcohol, tobacco, and education.

As Weber is quick to point out, the differences between American men and women pale in comparison with our similarities. After all, even if American men caught up with American women, we'd still have the biggest carbon footprint in the world—by a long shot.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.