As much as we want to be part of climate solutions, most of us have limited time, energy, and money. The Union of Concerned Scientists responded to the call for clearer guidance on effective individual actions in their 2012 book Cooler, Smarter: Practical Steps for Low Carbon Living, and identified the areas where each of us can make the biggest difference in slowing the pace of climate pollution. If we are to achieve the 80 percent emissions reductions climatologists tell us we need by midcentury, we have to start making big changes. The good news? Some of these changes are in fact simple and can help us significantly reduce our own contributions starting right now.
By the Numbers
Here’s how the average American’s annual CO2 output – roughly 21 tons – breaks down, by percentages and tons:
Transportation: 28% (5.9 tons)
Consumer goods and services: 26% (5.5 tons)
Home heating and cooling: 17% (3.6 tons)
Other home energy use: 15% (3 tons)
Food: 14% (3 tons)
Because these are averages, they vary widely for people who don’t have cars or are vegetarians, or who live in small, efficient homes powered by renewable energy versus those who eat meat daily and travel a lot or live in large, inefficient homes. Numbers look very different in other countries, where policies such as gas and car taxes and incentives for efficient appliances and renewable energy have helped residents maintain a similar quality of life with far less climate impact than in the US, Canada, and Australia.
You can find out how your lifestyle stacks up by using carbon calculators like this one from Berkeley, which allows you to see instantly how different changes in your habits or equipment affect the carbon your lifestyle generates. It’s heartening to watch your bar graphs shrink from the average as you power your home with renewables, drive less, or shift to a plant-based diet.
Once you have a sense of the specific areas of your life responsible for the most emissions, you can start with the pieces offering the biggest potential carbon savings and begin knocking off a ton here and a half a ton there with some pretty straightforward steps. When millions of us make similar changes, we’re talking about some serious emissions reductions. Below are the top tips from the Union of Concerned Scientists for people whose outputs track the average.
Start with Your Car
Car travel is the number one contributor of C02 in most Americans’ lives, responsible for over a quarter of all emissions. If your annual carbon footprint is the average 21 tons and your car use (12,000 miles per year) and efficiency (24 mpg) also track the average, simply switching to a more fuel-efficient car can take your overall contribution down 20 percent or more, effective immediately.
If you’re in the market for a new car, go to fueleconomy.gov and think hard about the models you’re considering. Hybrid models get up to 20 miles per gallon more than their standard counterparts, which means if you’re driving the average 12,000 miles per year, you’ll save 300 gallons of gas and keep nearly 4 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year, in addition to thousands of dollars in savings over the life of the car. Plug-in hybrids do even better. Many people choose what are called “crossover vehicles,” assuming they have more cargo space, but there are hybrid options with similar capacity that get far better mileage. Also ask yourself whether you need a bigger car for everyday use. You’ll burn a lot of extra gas commuting or running errands in a larger vehicle; with all the money a smaller car saves you on fuel, you could easily rent a larger vehicle for the few times each year you need to haul something large or take a family vacation.
Or take it a step further and check out an electric vehicle. Some models cost about the same as conventional cars and will save thousands on fuel costs.
If you’re not in the market for a new car, these tips about driving with an eye to fuel economy are spot-on:
- Drive smart – reduce the number of stops and starts improve your fuel economy by up to 30 percent. Drive 60 mph instead of 75 and get 20 percent better mileage per gallon.
- Keep your car tuned – for up to a 4% increase in efficiency.
- Make sure tires are properly inflated and save another 3%.
- Take off the roof rack when you’re not using it –it reduces efficiency by another 5 percent.
- Don’t keep junk in the trunk. Every 100 pounds is another 1-2% reduction in efficiency.
Also see if you can drive less overall. More than half of all trips are less than 6 miles. Try walking or biking to the gym and count that time toward your workout, or incorporate your trip to the post office into your exercise routine. Get some good bike baskets (or use the kids’ trailer!) and you can probably get a sizeable portion of the weekly groceries home without ever using your car.
If you’re a commuter, can you carpool? Even once per week would drop your car use by 20 percent. See if your employer would permit you to do some of your work from home. Not only will you save money and prevent pollution, you’ll enjoy extra time in your day when you skip the commute.
If you’re planning to move, consider finding a home close enough to work or mass transit so you can get to work or school without a car.
Already Shifted Your Driving? Make Home Heating and Cooling More Efficient
Another 17 percent of our carbon emissions results from heating and cooling our homes. If you can keep your home comfortable with less energy, you’ll make another big dent in your carbon contributions. Your first move is to make sure you’re only heating and cooling your house, not your neighborhood. Experts estimate that air leaks may account for over a quarter of energy used in the average home, so if your heating and cooling bill is $1000, you might be wasting $250 (and emitting a ton of CO2 unnecessarily) every year. So seal up those leaks and insulate, and you’ll not only reduce your carbon footprint, but also have more cash to put toward other energy upgrades (which will eventually save you more money as well).
Many utilities offer discounted home energy audits, which can be incredibly helpful for finding air leaks, and some utilities will actually pay auditing teams to do the sealing for you. An auditor will perform a blower door test to find all the places air can penetrate your home, and you can often arrange to have an infrared camera pinpoint cold spots that need more insulation or sealing. Many auditing programs will give you enough free lightbulbs, faucet aerators, or other efficiency tools to more than make up for the modest cost of the audit. It’s a great way to learn how your home and its systems function to help you target the upgrades that will have the greatest impact.
Top home efficiency steps experts recommend:
Get a programmable thermostat, and learn how to use it. Only about a third of homes have them, and only a small number of those are programmed correctly. Be sure to set yours low in winter and high in summer when you’re asleep or out of the house and watch your energy consumption drop.
Look for ways to decrease dependence on your heating and cooling systems. Use your window coverings to minimize heat gain in summer and maximize it in winter, try alternative cooling methods instead of your A/C, and only heat or cool the areas of the house actually in use. In warm climates, consider a cool roof, which reflects rather than absorbs heat, making your home cooler and lessening the need for air conditioning.
Finally, if your heating and cooling systems are older, look into replacing them with more efficient models. Heat pumps are an excellent investment, providing both heating and cooling at greater efficiency than traditional systems. Some can be tied to your hot water heater, which accounts for 15 percent of home energy use and can also be a focus when you’re looking to upgrade your home’s efficiency. (Also consider a solar hot water heater, which though more expensive upfront, saves money over the life of the equipment.)
The Carbon Footprint of Meat-based Diets
While other elements of our diet affect our carbon footprint, meat, particularly beef, is by the far the biggest contributor. Beef alone contributes over a third of all emissions from US agriculture, so if you’re eating an average amount of meat (270 pounds per year), cutting your meat consumption half can eliminate over a ton of carbon each year. Already do meatless Mondays? Go meatless most days and enjoy all the health benefits on a plant-based diet as well.
The Environmental Working Group has put together a helpful infographic showing different foods’ equivalencies to miles driven in a car. When you do choose meat, poultry is a lower-carbon choice. If your vegetarian meals incorporate a lot of cheese, you may be surprised to find that the footprint for cheese is right up there with meat, and is something to consider cutting back on if you want your diet to emit less carbon. Try getting your protein from tofu, nuts, and bean and grain combinations instead.
The follow-up to this post, “Next Steps for a Low-Carbon Lifestyle” goes into further detail about your diet’s impact on emissions, but if you want to find out more about the specifics of your diet, you can use Clean Metric’s calculator.
What changes have you already made to reduce your carbon footprint? What do you plan to do next? If you’re looking to live more sustainably and have already taken all the steps above, you’ll find what you need to know to shrink your emissions further in Part 2, “Next Steps for a Low-Carbon Lifestyle.”
Union of Concerned Scientists, Cooler, Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living
Berkeley Climate Calculator