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These Aerial Photos Explain Why Europe Has Such a Lower Carbon Footprint Than the U.S.

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Courtesy Alex MacLean

Neighborhoods in Europe are more dense than those in the U.S. Image by Alex MacLean. Denmark, 2015.

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Courtesy Alex MacLean

MacLean photographed massive solar and wind facilities. Image by Alex MacLean. Germany, 2015.

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Courtesy Alex MacLean

The average European has about half the carbon footprint of an inhabitant of the U.S. Robust bicycle and public transit infrastructure are among the reasons why. Image by Alex MacLean. Denmark, 2015.

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The average European has about half the carbon footprint of the average American, but that isn't necessarily because the average German is trying to be greener than someone in Montana. Image by Alex MacLean. Denmark, 2015.

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American suburbs have a hefty footprint compared to European suburbs largely because of oversized houses and long commutes. Image by Alex MacLean. Denmark, 2015.

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MacLean documented land use patterns along with Europe's transformation to renewable energy. Image by Alex MacLean. Germany, 2015.

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Rysum, a 15th-century village. Expansion is restricted within a growth boundary, creating a sharp urban and rural edge. Image by Alex MacLean. Germany, 2015.

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A dedicated bike bridge, called the “Cycle Snake” in Copenhagen. Continuous bike lanes are increasingly popular in the city. Image by Alex MacLean. Denmark, 2015.

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Wind turbine blades stockpiled at a port facility along the Elbe River. Image by Alex MacLean. Germany, 2015.

The average European has about half the carbon footprint of the average American, but that isn't necessarily because the average German is trying to be greener than someone in Montana. In part, it's a function of sprawl; American suburbs have a hefty footprint largely because of long communities and oversized houses.

In a new series of aerial photos, commissioned by Yale 360, photographer Alex MacLean flew over Europe to document land use patterns, along with the continent's transformation to renewable energy.

It was next step in the photographer's long-standing study of development. In a 2008 book titled Over, MacLean photographed American sprawl. "It was really about American land use patterns and sort of their absurdity," he says. "After that book, I wanted to do something positive."

At first, as he flew over parts of Germany and Scandinavia, MacLean says he wasn't that impressed. "It has an old-world look to it, just history," he says. "But then when you start looking at it, you see how well development is integrated to the existing patterns there, with sharp growth boundaries. Transit is so thoroughly integrated . . . the pedestrian and bike infrastructure is totally apparent."

In the countryside, he photographed massive new solar and wind farms. But he says that the comparative lack of sprawl was the most striking thing to look at from the sky. "When you think about all of the effort that we spend converting our lightbulbs, efficient cars, there's really no thought at all to our land use patterns and how it impacts climate," he says. "I think that's the key part of the story—people should really start thinking about climate in relationship to our development and growth patterns."