Much debate exists on the topic of climate change – but not among scientific experts. They agree that there is more than a 95% probability that human activities over the last 50 years have contributed significantly to the warming of our planet.
Specifically, the accelerated creation of greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide (atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased 1.5x in the last 150 years alone).
The potential effects of this warming could be catastrophic for those that live here (us). Flooding, droughts, severe weather, and more in proportions yet unseen are all looming ahead of us unless each of us does our part to turn things around.
Among the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, American homes contribute almost 10% in electrical use alone – not including the food we eat or the things we buy. Here are the top sources of greenhouse gases in your home and simple ways to reduce carbon footprint at home.
The Carbon Footprint of the Average American Household
According to data from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the biggest opportunities for impact are from the way we get ourselves around and how we shop. These are followed closely by the energy we use in our homes and what we choose to eat.
All of these are well within our reach to change and are actually quite simple to do so. Here are the specific actions that will drive the greatest change in your carbon footprint, based on data.
The Top 5 Ways to Reduce Your Household’s Carbon Footprint
Based on the data above, here are the top five actions you can take to address the top carbon emitters in your home.
1. Buy mindfully. Buy less.
While the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the things we buy account for 26% of our carbon footprint, the EPA estimates that the total “provision of goods” is a little higher at 29%.
This includes everything required to produce, transport, and dispose of the things we buy:
- The extraction of raw materials to produce them
- The manufacturing process used to turn raw materials into finished goods
- The energy required to transport them to stores
- The disposal of any waste created in the process, including the goods themselves, once obsolete
That’s why being mindful of what we purchase (and how much we purchase) is an essential part of reducing the overall carbon footprint we create.
Here are a few ideas of how you can do this:
- Embrace a more minimalist lifestyle. Buying only what you need in the quantity you need it helps cut down on emissions from manufacturing.
- Purchase new items with less packaging. Packaging contributes to the total provision of goods, increasing carbon emissions.
- Rent instead of buying. If you don’t use it regularly, it may make more sense to rent it when you need it instead of owning it.
- Buy used. Buying used instead of new reduces the volume of emissions from the provision of goods.
- Recycle. Recycling cuts down on the emissions created from sourcing raw materials for manufacturing the things we buy.
2. Drive slower or ride with others.
Although the fuel economy of cars has improved significantly in the last 15 years, cars and light trucks still account for nearly 17% (or 1.1 billion metric tons) of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a simple way to reduce this further is to simply drive the speed limit.
In fact, you can improve your car’s fuel economy by 7-14% just by driving the speed limit. If everyone did this, it would reduce the total CO2 emissions from automobiles by up to 154 million metric tons.
In addition to driving slower, ride-sharing is another solution for reducing carbon emissions. Some estimate that carpooling alone could cut the average person’s carbon emissions from transportation in half.
3. Optimize your home’s HVAC.
Most people understand that burning fossil fuels (like natural gas) to heat your home has a negative impact on the environment.
However many do not realize that even “clean” electric furnaces and air conditioners contribute significantly to their carbon footprint. In fact, for every kilowatt-hour of electricity, approximately 1 lb of CO2 is released into the air on average at the power plant.
When you consider the average home uses 10,399 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, anything you can do to reduce this can make a big difference.
Here are some ideas:
- Ensure your furnace is high-efficiency. High-efficiency furnaces can reduce energy usage by up to 36% (and save you the same on your monthly HVAC bill).
- Use a smart thermostat. Smart thermostats can optimize the temperature in your home to minimize energy use automatically.
- Consider a geothermal HVAC system. A geothermal HVAC system can reduce your energy bills by up to 70% in some cases.
4. Eat less meat and diary.
Food contributes to a significant portion of the average American’s carbon footprint (10%-30%), and the amount depends on your diet.
For example, a diet heavy in meat and dairy products will have a larger carbon footprint because these foods require plant inputs to produce (and because the conversion from plant energy to animal energy is so inefficient).
A vegetarian diet, on the other hand, has a much lower carbon footprint, since the energy required to produce fruits and vegetables is so much lower.
However, even changing the type of meat you primarily consume can make a big difference. For example, switching from beef to chicken for a year can reduce your overall carbon footprint by 882 lbs of CO2 (the equivalent of driving your car 1,116 fewer miles).
As a general rule, the more vegetarian you can eat (including fewer packaged and processed foods), the more it reduces your home’s carbon emissions.
Here are some ideas:
- Replace one dinner per week with an entirely vegetarian meal.
- Switch to meat substitutes like Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods.
- Use sustainable dairy-free milk and creamers like coconut or oat.
5. Buy high efficiency appliances.
Outside of heating and cooling, your appliances contribute to the bulk of your carbon footprint. Specifically, the top 3 energy users in your home are:
- Your water heater (14%)
- Your washer and dryer (13%)
- Your lighting (12%)
Minimizing the impact of these three items (by installing high-efficiency versions for example) can have a big impact on your total footprint and your energy bill.
Additionally, refrigerators alone also use 8% of your home’s total energy. So ensuring yours is efficient is essential!
While supporting clean energy initiatives will go a long way to reducing carbon emissions on a global scale, reducing our personal carbon footprint is about the sum of smaller, more mindful lifestyle changes we can make today. Every little bit adds up to a brighter future for our planet!