Germany: a declining ecological footprint

resources • Published October, 2021

Germany’s rank on the Happy Planet Index in 2019: #29. Explore the data.

By: Matthias Schmelzer

Germany’s Happy Planet Index score has been increasing steadily over the last 14 years due to a combination of increasing subjective wellbeing, marginally increasing life expectancy, and a slow decline in ecological footprint.

In 2020, Germany ranked 6th in the world, just ahead of other EU countries such as the Netherlands, but behind Switzerland. The major changes – increases in wellbeing and declines in ecological footprint – both accelerated during the year 2020, leading to an improvement of the country’s HPI score of 1.6. 


Germany’s ecological footprint has fallen over the last 14 years (from 5.4 gha per capita in 2006 to 3.93 gha per capita in 2020), resulting mainly from the buildup of renewable energy infrastructure (the German “Energiewende”) and other climate friendly legislations. 

The steeper emission reductions in 2020 were largely caused by the COVID-19 lockdowns and are likely to rebound in 2021 as lockdown restrictions are lifted. The increase in subjective wellbeing (from 6.4 out of 10 in 2007 to 7.3 in 2020) can be attributed to a long period of stable economic development, Germany not having felt major impacts from the economic crisis of 2008, and faring comparatively well during the COVID-19 pandemic due to social support by the government, short-time work allowances, and Germany’s dominant financial position within the EU. 

A ways to go

Despite this generally improving trend, Germany is still far away from sustainable wellbeing, given that a sustainable per person ecological  footprint, according to the Global Footprint Network, was 1.56 gha in 2019 and will be 1.33 gha per capita in 2030. That implies a much steeper decrease in footprint is required. In fact, Germany would need to continue the decrease in ecological footprint caused in 2020 by the lockdowns, for each year over the next decade. 

Achieving this not only requires an immediate phase out of coal, drastic increases in the speed of the renewable build-up and the rate of climate-friendly retrofitting of houses and a shift to electric cars and public transportation, but also a systemic social-ecological transformation that overcomes the export-oriented growth-model of the German economy.

About the author

Matthias Schmelzer is an economic historian, networker and climate activist. He is a post-doctoral researcher at the Friedrich-Schiller University Jena and works at Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie (Laboratory for New Economic Ideas).
You can connect with Matthias on Twitter at @MGSchmelzer and Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie at

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