But you can still slash some serious emissions by focusing on the areas of your life that produce more carbon than they need to.
Energy used in the home for purposes besides heating and cooling accounts for 15 percent of our overall carbon output, and much of it is simply wasted, doing nothing to increase our quality of life. The top draws in most homes are lighting, the refrigerator and washing machine, and what are called phantom loads, energy used by your printer, computer, TV, and other electronics when they are not actually in use. So to trim your home energy use:
- Change out those bulbs – you save hundreds of dollars and hundreds of pounds of carbon by switching from incandescents to LEDs. Read more here
- Upgrade older refrigerators and washing machines with the most energy-efficient models you can afford. Newer models use far less energy and will quickly pay for themselves.
- Wash laundry in cold water. Hot water uses 5 times as much energy as cold; warm water, twice as much.
- Don’t leave printers and computers on, and use a power strip to cut off electricity to idle televisions and other electronics. You can save over $100 (as well as the carbon equivalent) a year just by cutting power to your printer when it’s not in use.
Of course, you can eliminate the carbon resulting from your electric use completely by generating your own electricity. Solar prices have dropped dramatically in recent years, and with the incentives available, payback for solar installation costs comes quicker than ever. Over the life of the panels, you’ll likely save more than $20,000, depending on the future price of energy. If you’re not able to meet the upfront costs of a solar installation on your home, more companies are offering financing and leasing, and many communities have started solar gardens, allowing those who for a variety of reasons can’t put panels on their houses to buy local, cleanly-produced electricity.
In Your Own Backyard
Most carbon calculators don’t take into account the footprint of people’s yards, particularly their lawns, which between fertilizer and mowing have quite a sizable impact on emissions and pollution. There are over 20 million acres of lawn in the United States, and every year we burn over 800 million gallons of gas to keep them mowed, spewing 16 billion pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere in the process. Experts estimate that another 17 million gallons are spilled annually while refilling lawn mowers.
Additionally, each pound of fertilizer and pesticide requires up to 6 pounds of carbon to make. Even more significantly, when fertilizer breaks down it releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas three hundred times more potent than CO2. So when you skip the fertilizer and plant some native plants and trees, you can make a big dent in your contribution to greenhouse gas pollution, particularly if you plant for energy savings. By shading your house and air conditioner in summer and providing windbreaks in winter, you can cut your need for carbon-intensive air conditioning and heat. Replace some lawn with trees, and you can shave off another ton of carbon from your energy use while sequestering additional tons of carbon every year.
The Climate Impact of Food
As described in Part 1 of this article, the meat in our diet has the greatest impact on our food’s carbon footprint, but other dietary choices affect our carbon emissions as well. To make your diet more climate-friendly, here are the next issues to address:
Minimize packaged food, particularly bottled beverages
Fifty million barrels of oil (producing 2.5 million tons of CO2!) are used just to make water bottles each year, which generate still more emissions as they are shipped around the country. Soda, water, and other bottled drinks account for roughly 7 percent of the carbon generated by our diet, so cutting back or eliminating bottled beverages altogether is a good way to shrink your foodprint.
All the petroleum required to make packaging for foodstuffs can really add up as well, so make it a habit to buy what you can from the bulk bins (bring your own reusable containers!) and skip heavily-packaged products whenever possible. Many natural food stores carry not only grains, beans, and spices, but also shampoos, laundry detergents, oils, and sweeteners in bulk, so you can refill your jars and bottles over and over again and skip all the unnecessary packaging. While recycling containers helps—every pound of material you recycle prevents an estimated two pounds of carbon emissions—it’s far more effective to avoid making the containers in the first place.
Reduce waste and compost your food scraps
Studies have shown that roughly a quarter of our trash is food waste that could have been consumed or composted. Recycling our food waste by composting saves an equivalent tonnage of greenhouse gas emissions produced when food breaks down in landfills and creates methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than CO2. So if your family is sending 20 pounds of compostables to the landfill each week, that’s another ton of emissions that could be kept out of the atmosphere each year if you compost them instead. Cutting down on wasted food also helps, allowing you to buy less overall.
The Footprint of "Stuff"
The non-food consumer goods we buy make up another 10 percent of our emissions, with the balance going to things like healthcare, which we don’t have a lot of control over. The biggest pieces of this part of the puzzle are the water your household uses and sends out to treatment plants, household supplies, furnishings, clothing, and electronics.
What to do to reduce the impact of your stuff:
The water that comes into your home is quite energy-intensive, requiring over eight pounds of CO2 for every dollar spent. Conserving water in your home and yard will help reduce your carbon footprint.
Try buying less and buying used
Ask yourself if you really need something, then see if you can borrow it or buy it secondhand. For instance, some neighborhoods have started tool-sharing programs, so each individual household doesn’t need to buy their own weed wrench or belt sander. If your neighborhood doesn’t have one, look into starting one, or talk informally to neighbors about tools you have to share and ones you might like to borrow or own cooperatively.
Research has demonstrated repeatedly that experiences, not things make us happier, so try buying less and use the money you save to go to the theater or take a family vacation. When you do need to purchase new things, look for products made with recycled content or raised sustainably, such as organic cotton or FSC-certified wood. Look for well-made products that will last over poorly made ones that need frequent replacement.
Spread the Word
All your efforts are multiplied as you teach friends, colleagues, and neighbors the importance of sustainable behavior. Helping others understand the most effective ways to improve our carbon footprints is vital if we want to slow the pace of climate pollution, and studies suggest that people are most likely to adopt behaviors of people they know. If everyone in the US, Canada, and Australia made even some of changes enumerated in these posts, the reduction in carbon emissions would be substantial.
Share your concern about climate change with your elected officials. Our representatives in government need to hear that their constituents care about these issues, so as you shift to a lower carbon lifestyle, write letters and sign petitions asking your leaders to create policies that incentivize such choices. Real commitment to mass transit, renewable energy, and building codes requiring greater efficiency are desperately needed to make sustainable lifestyles more easily attainable for everyone.
Union of Concerned Scientists, Cooler, Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living
National Tree Benefit Calculator
Berkeley Climate Calculator