Actions you can take right now
According to the University of California Berkeley CoolClimate Network, the typical American household is responsible for 50 tons of CO2 per year, or 20 tons per person per year. The global average is 6 tons per person per year, and reductions to below 2 tons per person per year will be needed to stay within the 1.5 °C Paris agreement warming target. Getting there will require meaningful reductions in all areas of our lives, from transportation to heating and powering our houses, to the food we eat.
In the United States, transportation contributes more CO2 emissions than any other sector, and most of these emissions are from cars and light trucks. The average passenger vehicle:
- Has a fuel economy of 22 mpg,
- Is driven 11,500 miles per year, and
- Emits 4.6 tons of CO2 per year.
Electric cars are designed to use less energy (a Tesla battery holds about as much energy as three gallons of gasoline!), and now as the US electrical grid gets cleaner, nearly everyone lives in a place where an EV results in less CO2 than a 50mpg gasoline car.
And electric cars are becoming more affordable. The current algebra shows that you break even on cost within 8 years, and break even on lifecycle emissions after <2 years.
Even if you can’t upgrade to an electric car, you can eliminate some of those emissions by leaving your car in the garage and taking the bike to work. Some of our members report biking 5 or 6 miles to work, thereby eliminating around 1 ton of CO2 per year and getting their exercise while they commute. And the best part is they never have to deal with traffic, making for a more predictable trip.
Of course a safe route is key, as are bright lights, comfortable clothes, and extra layers in the winter. Finally, our members recommend having a back-up plan in case of storms or other issues. For example, can you switch to public transit if needed?
If you’re wondering how to get started, search for a bicycle club or bike-to-work-day in your area for recommended routes and other resources.
When you measure per-mile emissions, flying (commercial, coach class) is roughly equal to driving a Prius by yourself (or carpooling with a companion in an average vehicle). The problem is that when we fly, we can rack up thousands of miles in a few hours.
Ballpark number to keep in mind: a round-trip flight across the US and back emits about a ton of CO2.
So it helps to be conscious of the impact of your air travel. Google flights now shows the carbon footprint of flights as you shop for them. Once you understand the emissions from your travel, you can reduce or offset it.
Below you can see the average CO2 emissions from each appliance across homes in the Mid-Atlantic states from the 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey multiplied by gas and electricity CO2 emission factors for Washington DC for easier comparison (6-8 tons of CO2 per year total).
Unless you live in a really warm place, heating is the largest source of home CO2 emissions by far, followed by other large appliances and lighting. Reducing their use and making them as efficient as possible will give you the biggest CO2 reductions and cost savings!
You likely pay a pretty penny to heat and cool your home, so keep that conditioned air in by making sure your house is well sealed.
Air-sealing refers to closing any gaps and cracks in the envelope of your home to avoid drafts and leakage of heated or air conditioned air to the outside. It is the cheapest thing you can do to improve your home comfort and pretty easy too.
Gaps and cracks can form wherever two surfaces come together, such as between walls and floors, or around doors and windows. One Climate Club member had an energy audit, and learned that all the gaps in their house added up to the equivalent of a two-foot-square hole!
You wouldn’t want that in your house, so get a caulk gun and caulk and fill in any small cracks that you see. The caulk you use will depend on the color of nearby surfaces (white clear, or some other color; paintable or not).
For larger gaps use expanding foam. It helps if the foam is washable, because then you can wash away any that is stuck in the dispenser, and save the rest for later.
Finally, don’t forget to replace the weatherstripping around your exterior doors or windows if you feel a draft or can see outside light.
The more insulation you have, the less you need to run the heat (in winter) or the air conditioner (in summer) to keep your home at a comfortable temperature. In fact, it is possible to design houses with enough insulation that they do not need any heat at all!
The easiest places to add insulation are any exposed water pipes, and an unfinished attic, basement, or crawlspace.
Uninsulated water pipes suck heat out of hot water, resulting in a longer wait for hot water when washing dishes or taking a shower. If you live in a cold climate, an uninsulated pipe in a crawlspace or unfinished basement could also freeze and burst! So if you find uninsulated water pipes (such as the copper ones in the above photo from a Climate Club member), be sure to insulate.
Doing so is easy with a foam sleeve that matches the diameter of the pipe you are trying to insulate. The sleeve is shaped like a cylinder with a slit; simply measure out the length of sleeve you’ll need, slip it on, and tape up the slit to keep heat from escaping.
An unfinished attic, basement, or crawlspace should also have sufficient insulation to prevent loss of heat from your living space—the more the better. In the attic, ensure that insulation is thick enough that you can no longer see the joists. You can use fiberglass rolls if the attic is big enough to easily move around, or blow in cellulose fibers. In a basement or crawlspace, you hang fiberglass batts (long rectangles) between the joists using wire hangers. Be sure to measure the space between the joists so you know what size insulation and wire hangers to buy.
Next time you have to replace your heating system or air conditioner, get a heat pump! A heat pump is an air conditioner that can also run backwards, pulling heat from the outside air, concentrating it, and using it to warm your home. This process uses roughly 1/3 the site energy as burning natural gas or using traditional electric resistance furnace or baseboard heaters.
Heat pumps are more efficient when the outside air is warmer (the temperature difference between outside and inside is smaller and they don’t have to work as hard), but there are cold climate heat pumps that can maintain efficient performance below 5 °F! Also, if you are only replacing your air conditioner, you can pay a bit more to get a heat pump now and enjoy the benefits of a heat pump for most of the year, while keeping your fossil fuel furnace or boiler as a backup for the coldest days.
Below are the expected reductions in CO2 and utility bills from using a heat pump either with gas backup or as sole source of heat for the average home in Washington, DC. For state-by-state estimates, check out a recent report on Hybrid Heat Homes.
|Scenario||CO2 Reduction (tons/yr)||Cost Reduction (Jan 21 prices, $/yr)||Cost Reduction (2x higher gas prices, $/yr)|
|HP used as backup to gas||1||$100||$300|
|HP used as sole heating||2||$44||$500|
Water heaters can also include heat pumps, making them more efficient, and since these are usually kept in a garage or basement which do not get as cold, there is less of an impact due to temperature.
Switching to heat pumps will be crucial to electrifying our houses and getting off fossil fuels over the next decade as summarized in this video from Electrify America.
Many utilities offer customers the ability to decarbonize their electricity by switching to generation from 100% renewable sources. For many utility customers, the price change is small; in our DC climate club we found that most members could have carbon free electricity for less than the price of a Netflix subscription.
Another way to be sure your household electricity comes from 100% renewable sources is to generate that electricity yourself, via solar panels. In jurisdictions that use net metering, the electricity from your solar panels offsets your electric bill at the same cost per kilowatt-hour. So if you install a solar system that’s just the right size to meet your monthly needs, you’ll pay no electricity bill and be using zero-emissions electricity.
To see how much sunlight your roof gets (and estimate your cost savings with solar), Google Project Sunroof is a great start. Then if you’d like to see proposals from local solar companies based on details of your home, Energy Sage can help you compare quotes.
For most of the appliances in your home, there is an ENERGY STAR alternative, which will reduce your CO2 emissions and save on energy bills. ENERGY STAR labels are set to recognize the top 25% most efficient products in the market, and are an easy way to avoid energy hogs when shopping.
For example, the average primary refrigerator in the US consumed 586 kWh per year in 2015, emitting roughly 0.25 tons of CO2. In contrast, a new ENERGY STAR refrigerator recently purchased by a Climate Club member consumes 329 kWh/year, cutting emissions by about 0.1 tons per year, or 0.04 tons per person for a 2.5-person household.
The ENERGY STAR program also estimates $220 in lifetime electricity bill savings over a conventional new model, not factoring in any rebates that may be available in your area.
To shop ENERGY STAR, simply look for the blue label, or when shopping online, select ENERGY STAR from the list of filters to the left of the screen.
For more savings check out ENERGY STAR’s product lists:
According to Christopher Jones from the University of California, Berkeley, “Americans waste about a third of the food they buy … Reducing food purchases and physical consumption would have even greater greenhouse gas benefits than reducing meat consumption”.
So refrigerate and eat those leftovers and familiarize yourself with the difference between “best by” and “sell by” dates, which do not mean the food has expired.
You can do even more by getting your fruits and vegetables from a company that “rescues” unsightly produce that may not get sold at a traditional supermarket.
Meat, and especially red meat, has up to 10x higher CO2 emissions per calorie and per gram of protein than plant alternatives. This is partly due to the methane (a potent greenhouse gas that comes from animal digestion and waste), but also due to CO2 emissions from other aspects of meet production.
But how much CO2 can you cut by eating less meat or none at all? A 2014 University of Oxford Study of 50,000 people in the UK found that the typical meat eater was responsible for 2.6 tons of CO2 per year. Meanwhile, cutting out most meat reduced that impact by about 1 ton, while going fully vegan (no animal products) reduced the impact by 1.5 tons. Pescatarianism (eating fish) and vegetarianism (eating dairy) were in-between.
|Meat Eater||66% Less Meat||Pescatarian||Vegetarian||Vegan|
|Total CO2 Emissions (tCO2/yr)||2.6||1.7||1.4||1.4||1.1|
So avoiding red meat and eating less meat altogether can have a big impact on your carbon footprint, and it can save you money too, estimated at $750 per year!
In order to grow, plants take carbon dioxide from the air. But if those same plants end up in a landfill and decompose without oxygen, they will not return the carbon dioxide back into the air, but will instead produce methane, a gas that is tens of times times worse for global warming than CO2.
More than half of municipal solid waste (a.k.a. household trash) is made up of organic plant material: paper, cardboard, food scraps, and yard waste. You can prevent most of that paper and cardboard from ending up in the landfill through recycling. For the rest of the organics, try composting—a way of decomposing organic materials without generating methane. Composting a ton of organic waste reduces methane equivalent to half a ton of CO2 over a 100 year timeframe.
There are different ways you can compost depending on where you live. The simplest is if your local government already offers compost pickup, but the others are pretty easy too:
- Buy a backyard composter,
- Drop off your organic waste at a participating community garden or farmers market,
- Sign up for a service that will pick up your organic waste.
All of these methods will turn the waste into nutritious fertilizer that you or local farmers can use when growing more plants!
Goods & Services
The goods we buy have a huge impact on our CO2 footprint, due to the energy and emissions needed to extract and refine the raw materials, manufacture the products, and finally transport them to us, sometimes halfway around the world!
One way to limit this impact is to get products used or second-hand. Gently used products often come at a significant discount, or even for free!
Don’t believe us? Check out the following ways to find things you need while building a community with your neighbors:
Finally, if you are getting rid of items you no longer need, look for non-profits in your area that accept clothes, home goods, or even building materials, all of which can benefit others and the planet instead of going in the landfill.