My wife and I are just now starting our journey to a greener lifestyle. During our first years of marriage, we spent more of our time focusing on financial stability than our impact on the earth, which – now that we’re thinking about it – seems pretty backwards in a big picture sort of way. But we recently came across a carbon footprint calculator that helped us see the impact of our decisions.
We want to become more conscious of the things we do, whether that’s the large changes like transportation and energy or the smaller stuff, like switching from paper plates to dishware. We’re ready to shift our priorities, and that starts with our home and lifestyle.
If your plan, like ours, is to reduce or neutralize your carbon footprint, let’s walk through some practical steps to get you there. I won’t advise that you live in a solar-powered yurt or survive off dandelion-foraging and rainwater alone. If you can make that leap and enjoy it, more power to you. But for most of us, we can’t (or don’t want to) make these kinds of drastic changes. And that’s OK.
Instead, we’ll discuss how to measure your carbon footprint, how to lower your carbon footprint and ways to counteract your carbon footprint. This can be your ground zero for going green.
How to Measure Your Carbon Footprint
Since about 1750, our carbon dioxide emissions (as well as methane and nitrous oxide emissions) have skyrocketed, coinciding closely with the start of the Industrial Revolution. Here are some fast facts to consider:
- The average global person emits 5 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.
- The average American emits a whopping 16.2 tons of carbon each year – greater than three times the world average.
- Food production and food transportation are some of the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. On average, each U.S. household emits 8.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide from food consumption per year.
- Transportation – both personal and public – represents 27% of total U.S. carbon emissions.
So what do we do about it? The first step my wife and I took was to find out exactly how much carbon we were emitting each year. As I said before, we started with a carbon footprint calculator. While there are a wide variety of calculators you can use, some of my favorites include the Terrapass Calculator, the EPA Carbon Footprint Calculator and the Nature Conservancy Calculator. With these tools, you’ll see your household’s current yearly carbon emissions.
For instance, we learned that air travel is playing a big part in our yearly carbon emissions. Between business trips, family visits and vacations, we’re not being very wise with our carbon usage. Starting with a calculator was a good way for us to recognize our behaviors and figure out a game plan for cutting carbon.
How Do You Lower Your Carbon Footprint?
Now that you know your carbon footprint for the year, let’s talk about ways that you can minimize it. Some changes are going to seem pretty extreme, but their impact can be substantial.
Fewer Children = Less Carbon
In a recent study that’s caused some backlash and debate, researchers in Sweden and British Columbia analyzed 148 actions that a person could do to reduce their carbon impact. They claim that the most effective way to reduce your personal carbon emissions is by having one fewer child. By doing this, you would be reducing carbon emissions by 58.6 tonnes of C02 per year.
As you can imagine, this suggestion has caused some controversy. I should point out that carbon emissions should not be your only reason for having – or not having – children.
If you already have kids, that’s great! As a family you can focus on many of these other carbon-lowering opportunities.
Shifting Gears and Selling Your Car
The second most effective way to reduce carbon is by living without a car, which could reduce your carbon emissions by 2.4 tonnes per year. For those of you living in urban areas, this may be a realistic possibility. I would encourage you to take a hard look at your public transportation options that are available. Regularly driving a car may not be as much of a necessity as you think. Travelling by bus, bike or public transportation are all great alternatives to driving a car.
Other options for lowering your carbon emissions are through switching to an electric car (saving you 1.15 tonnes per year) or a hybrid car (saving .52 tonnes per year).
One option that people tend to forget about is carpooling, an excellent option for sharing/lowering your carbon emissions. Most states’ departments of transportation have information about finding a carpool in your area.
A No-Fly Zone
In this interconnected world we live in, it’s easy to hop on a plane and travel long distances in a short amount of time. With the exception of security checks, it’s the definition of travel convenience. But these flights are emitting significant amounts of carbon. A single round-trip flight from New York to California, and you’ve produced 20% of the greenhouse gasses that your car creates in a whole year.
Take some time to think about your recreational flights, such as family vacations or visiting relatives. Can you prioritize or minimize these trips during the year?
When it comes to business trips, you may have less say in the matter, but talk to your company about the benefits of flying fewer times during the year. After all, today’s technology gives us the ability to interact clearly through video and audio tools. Do you need to physically be onsite each and every time?
If there’s one type of flying to cut back specifically, it would transatlantic flights. Avoiding a single transatlantic flight roundtrip will reduce your carbon emissions by 1.60 tonnes. And if you do fly, consider buying carbon offsets through airlines like Delta, United and JetBlue. We’ll talk more about carbon offsets later in the article.
Where’s the Beef?
As someone whose childhood largely consisted of Big Macs and chili fries, let me be the first to say that this is disheartening news. But meat – specifically meat that comes from beef or lamb – is produced at a high-carbon cost. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that each 2.2 pounds of beef produces 58.4 pounds of CO2 emissions. If you’re wondering how cattle can produce so much carbon, a great deal of it comes down to the farming and transportation of the animals’ feed.
If you get a chance, check out the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where author Michael Pollan investigates the way that our food gets to the kitchen table. From a raw energy perspective alone, your filet mignon isn’t efficient to produce.
When talking about one cow specifically, Pollan says that “Every day between now and his slaughter in six months (the cow) will convert thirty-two pounds of feed into four pounds of gain – new muscle, fat, and bone.” Chicken, on the other hand, only requires two pounds of feed for one pound of gain – which is why chicken is cheaper than beef. It also means that raising/farming/eating chicken produces significantly less carbon.
Not only that, but cow and sheep feces also produce a large amount of methane, which is included with carbon under the greenhouse gas umbrella.
By lowering your intake of meat, you’re able to reduce your overall carbon impact. If you went to an all-vegetarian diet, you could conceivably reduce your carbon footprint by up to .82 tonnes per year.
Household Changes to Lower Your Carbon Footprint
When it comes to our homes, there are a wide variety of changes you can implement to reduce carbon emissions. Most commonly, this is done through minimizing energy spend and making your home more energy efficient. If you’re interested in the amount of carbon dioxide produced per kilowatt hour when generating electricity with fossil fuels, the Energy Information Administration can provide you with state-specific information.
While there are many ways to go green at home, here are some of the best ways lower your carbon footprint.
Your home’s energy efficiency is closely connected to your carbon emissions. You can implement simple fixes immediately, such as installing low-flow showerheads, properly sealing windows and replacing incandescent lightbulbs with halogen bulbs, compact fluorescent lamps or LED-style lights.
You could also consider hiring an energy auditor to look for areas in your home that could be more efficient, such as the furnace, ductwork and insulation. Not only will this cut the carbon emissions, but upgrading your home to save energy can put anywhere between 5% – 30% of your energy bill back in your pocket.
Solar panels are hitting their stride this year. They’re more affordable and efficient than ever, and now that Tesla is working on batteries and solar shingles, it’s only a matter of time before they become the norm. Solar energy is also a great way to significantly cut your home’s carbon emissions. How much can solar panels reduce your carbon footprint? A typical system will produce 7,100 KWHs of energy per year and reduce carbon emissions by 4.9 tonnes. With few exceptions, solar panels are one of the best ways to reduce your carbon emissions. Not only this, but they’re one of the few changes that will actually make you money over time.
Turned Down (the Thermostat) for What?
Thermostats have come a long way in the last decade, which is great news since they’ve previously been a source of wasted energy. Many can now be programmed and changed with the swipe of an iPhone. According to Energy.gov, simply turning down your thermostat 7 –10 degrees for eight hours a day can save up to 10% a year on energy bills. And with these savings, you’ll also lower your carbon emissions.
Cool Your Jets (and Washing Machine)
It helps to wash your clothes in cold water to save on energy and carbon emissions. According to Energy Star, almost 90% of energy being consumed by your washing machine goes directly to heating water. This switch will also reduce your yearly carbon emissions by 1,600 lbs.
Unplug for a While
While it may seem like common knowledge, unplugging items around the house can be an easy way to cut carbon emissions and save energy. Coffee makers, televisions, and power strips can be easily turned off when not in use.
How Do You Counteract Your Carbon Footprint?
Even with all of these great methods of reducing your footprint, there’s a good change you’re still producing some kind of carbon emissions. After you’ve done all you can to reduce your footprint, you can start focusing on carbon offsets. A carbon offset is something you do – or pay someone else to do – to compensate for carbon emissions. This can be a variety of initiatives and projects, such as funding a project to reduce greenhouse emissions or planting trees.
One quick thing to note; planting trees – while a great thing to do – may not be the fastest or most affordable way to offset your carbon emissions. For instance, when my wife and I were using the Terapass Calculator, it said we needed to plant 353 urban trees a year in order to offset our carbon emissions. That’s a lot of trees.
If you don’t have the time to make every day Arbor Day, I suggest you also look into other carbon offsets, which can be found on a variety of websites, including the carbon calculators listed above. There you can pay a defined amount of money to offset your carbon emissions each year. For my wife and me, it suggested we pay $151.64 for this year’s carbon emissions or $12.64 per month. We’ll still plant a tree or two, but this seems like a much more efficient way to offset our footprint.
While there has been some critique of carbon offsets, there are a wide variety of trustworthy programs you can support. These projects may go towards restoring the rain forest, creating wind farms, building energy-efficient vehicles and so much more. If you’re serious about going carbon neutral, these offsets are a must.
Going Carbon Neutral
Taking the first step toward reducing your carbon footprint is tough. But it’s also possible. When putting together a plan for cutting back on carbon emissions, make sure you do it with your entire family. It’s much easier to make these changes and tweaks when you’re all aligned. And take some time to think about the importance of your actions. We only have one earth, and by getting started with these practical tips, you’re doing your part to save it.
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