Climate change is the result of increasing levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, primarily referenced in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The longer we delay action on climate change, the worse its effects will be. Every person, business, organization, and government can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect our environment, and ensure the health of our climate.
What Is a Carbon Footprint and Why Does It Matter?
Your carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas emissions caused both directly and indirectly by your activities—and this includes all the things you buy, use, and consume. Every person, organization, product, and event has a carbon footprint. Typically a person’s carbon footprint is represented as the sum total of all of their direct and indirect carbon emissions over the course of a year.
The smaller your carbon footprint, the better for the planet and the future. A bigger footprint means that your activities release more greenhouse gasses and had a bigger negative impact on the environment.
Where Does Our Carbon Footprint Come From?
There is no doubt about it—climate change is real, and it’s the result of greenhouse gasses emitted from human activities. Certain natural processes, like volcanos, do emit some greenhouse gasses, but the actual amount of volcanic activity cannot account for the steep uptick in global CO2 concentrations. The pollution released by human beings doing human things, however, accounts for the spike perfectly.
In 2016, transportation accounted for about 28% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
Another 28% comes from the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity, mostly from burning fossil fuels.
The industrial processes that make the raw materials and consumer goods we use every day create about 22% of the United States’ carbon footprint.
Heating and Cooling in Homes and Businesses
Homes and businesses contribute about 11% of the country’s total greenhouse gas. Of this home energy, our heating and cooling systems are the worst offenders, causing almost 80% of all CO2 emission from residential and commercial sources.
Agriculture accounts for about 10% of total GHG emissions.
Your Hidden Carbon Footprint
When we think about greenhouse gasses, it’s easy to fixate on the obvious things—vehicle emissions, industrial smokestacks belching black smog into the air, and other things we can clearly see (and smell) causing pollution. However, it’s important to stay aware of the hidden sources of carbon emissions.
All the consumer goods we buy have their own carbon footprint, and that cost can be surprisingly high. Starting with the extraction of raw materials and continuing through processing, transport, retail, storage, consumer use, and finally disposal, every step of the lifespan of consumer products adds a little more to its carbon footprint. If you choose to buy unsustainably made products, your hidden carbon footprint can easily dwarf your “known” carbon footprint.
15 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Climate change is a global problem, but local actions matter. Here are a few things you can start doing at home to help make a difference.
1. Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
When your goal is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the first thing to do is to calculate your current carbon footprint. The EPA provides a free carbon footprint calculator to help you estimate your annual greenhouse gas emissions. Once you understand where your emissions come from, you can take steps to reduce your impact.
2. Drive Less
For every mile that you walk, bike, carpool, or take on mass transit instead of driving, you save one pound of carbon emissions. As a bonus, walking or biking to work are great ways to get a little exercise.
3. Switch to an Electric or Hybrid Car
Don’t rush out and buy a new car if you already have a perfectly serviceable vehicle. However, if you plan on replacing your current car anyway, a fuel-efficient vehicle can make a huge dent in your carbon footprint. An improvement of just 3 miles per gallon in fuel efficiency can save you 3,000 pounds of CO2 annually. Even better, opt for a pre-owned hybrid or fuel-efficient car.
4. Travel Smart
Though you might want to venture off to far-flung vacation destinations, jet fuel is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Instead of jet-setting around the world, consider taking your vacation closer to home. For every 1,600 miles of air travel you avoid, you can save 720 pounds of carbon emissions. Maybe you can take a road trip in that new electric car for maximum energy savings. If you can’t avoid flying to a remote locale, try offsetting your footprint with a program like terrapass™.
5. Switch to Renewable Energy
Power plants are the single largest source of greenhouse gasses, especially coal-burning power plants, which produce more than half the electricity in the United States. Fortunately, thanks to the deregulation of the energy industry, you have the power to choose to make a difference when choosing your energy provider. Opt for an energy provider that uses green energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro energy. We offer green energy plans in all the markets we serve, so always consider your options when choosing your next energy provider.
6. Consider Solar Panels
Even better, generate your own green energy! The sun will continue to shine for billions of years and provides free heat and light. Install some solar panels on your roof to harvest this natural, abundant energy. Solar panels can cost a little money upfront, but federal and state governments often offer tax incentives for the carbon offsets created by renewable energy.
7. Make Your Home More Efficient
Making your home more energy efficient won’t just help save the environment—it’ll help save you money too. Use caulk, insulation, and weather stripping to seal any air leaks in your home. Upgrade your incandescent lights to energy-efficient LED lighting. You’ll save money on your energy bill, reduce your carbon footprint, and increase the comfort of your home.
8. Upgrade to a Smart Thermostat
Turning your thermostat just 2 degrees cooler in winter and 2 degrees warmer in summer can save 2,000 pounds of CO2 each year. To get the most savings in both money and energy, invest in a smart thermostat. A smart thermostat is a Wi-Fi enabled device that automatically adjusts temperature settings in your home for peak energy efficiency. As an added bonus, some state and local governments offer tax rebates when you install a smart thermostat, and some energy providers offer discounts on the devices.
9. Get Energy Efficient Appliances
Thinking about buying a new washing machine? When you buy new appliances, upgrade to energy-efficient models. In the United States, look for the EPA’s ENERGY STAR label. Energy-efficient appliances generally cost a little more upfront, but the long-term savings are astonishing. If you switched to energy-efficient appliances in your home, you could save $11,000 on your energy bills and save about 130,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions over the lifetime of the products.
If every home in the U.S. used energy-efficient appliances, we would eliminate 175 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions and collectively save $15 billion in energy costs every year. If all Americans just switched to energy-efficient refrigerators, the U.S. would need 30 fewer power plants than we currently use.
10. Unplug Electrical Devices When Not in Use
Many appliances, including TVs, computers, air conditioners, and microwaves, continue to draw power even when turned off. Each device in “standby mode” draws very little power on its own, but all together, it can account for as much as 10% of residential energy use.
If you’re not using a device, don’t just turn it off, unplug it. Flipping the switch on a power strip works as well, and is a simple solution if you have a bunch of computer or entertainment devices that all share an outlet.
11. Buy Locally-sourced Food
Those roasted Hawaiian macadamia nuts might be delicious, but unless you live on the Big Island, those nuts had to be put on a boat or plane and shipped thousands of miles to get to your local grocery store. Every mile that food has to be transported via boat, plane, train, truck, or car will add to the product’s carbon footprint.
Look for fresh local food options at a nearby farmer’s market. If that’s too much of a hassle, even some grocery stores are now offering local options. Another option is signing up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) or a service that finds homes for “ugly” produce like Imperfect Produce or Hungry Harvest.
12. Start a Home Garden
Food can’t get much more local than what you grow in your own backyard. Research the fruits and veggies that grow best in your climate and reap the rewards. If you’re an apartment dweller and space is limited, you can still get in on the action with a small window box herb garden or a dwarf tree. Lemons, limes, pomegranates, kumquats, and some orange varieties can be grown indoors in containers.
13. Eat Less Meat
Even more effective than eating local is eating vegetarian. Meat has a huge carbon footprint because of the inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy. Billions of animals have to be fed every year, and all of that feed has be grown, harvested, transported. Animal agriculture is also a leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon to make space for grazing cattle. What’s worse, all those animals also release carbon in the form of methane—a greenhouse gas that’s significantly more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere that CO2. Going vegetarian even just one day per week will reduce your carbon footprint more than eating exclusively local food.[9, 10]
14. Don’t Waste Water
Pumping, treating, and heating water takes a surprisingly high amount of energy. In fact, 3% of the United State’s energy is used just to pump and treat water. Cutting down on water waste reduces energy costs and reduces greenhouse gas pollution.
Take simple steps to save water in your home. Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth, take showers instead of baths, and fix all leaky faucets and fixtures. A leaky toilet alone can waste up to 200 gallons of water a day and can often be fixed for just a couple bucks worth of parts and seals from a home improvement store.
15.Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
The three R’s—reduce, reuse, recycle—have been part of the American lexicon for decades. There are good reasons for the staying power or this iconic phrase. It’s simple, memorable, and the advice is just as good today as it was when it was first uttered. Reducing, reusing, and recycling in your home conserves energy and reduces the greenhouse gas emissions from resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, storage, and disposal. By recycling just half your household waste, you can save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide per year.
Trying to go a little further? The zero-waste movement has added two additional R’s: refuse and rot. Refuse to support companies with exploitative manufacturing practices, refuse to buy new when you can buy used, and simply make do with what you ready have by repairing items. Rot seems like an odd R, but it’s related to composting. If you have the space—or the option to drop off your organic waste—be sure to compost your veggie scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea leaves, paper waste, old leftovers (not meat), and even natural textiles.
Fast-fashion vs. Long-lasting Clothing
Do you find yourself getting rid of clothes that wear out too fast? Or maybe you’re shopping a little too often and waste money on things that don’t really suit you. Cut back on the waste by only buying quality clothing that is made to last in classic cuts that will last you more than a handful of seasons. Avoid clothing trends that change every year. Instead, go with timeless fashions that will look good for years to come.
If you have a tear in your favorite trousers, don’t just throw them away. Take them to a tailor to have them professionally mended. Clothing repairs generally only cost a few bucks. It’s cheaper and less wasteful than buying new clothes.
New vs. Used
Taking care of your stuff isn’t just for clothes. There was a time when people actually fixed broken things instead of tossing them out and buying new stuff. Let’s bring that back. Fridge on the fritz? Do an internet search for appliance repair shops in your area. If you pay a little more upfront for quality and remember to properly maintain your car, computer, phone, and other possessions—they’ll give you years of loyal service. Like with clothes, make sure you always buy quality. Some manufacturers are known for their long-lasting products. The companies you want to purchase from should provide warranties and service the previous versions of their products.
Today’s Choices Shape Tomorrow’s World
The greenhouse gasses we release into our atmosphere today will stay there for thousands of years. The actions— and inactions—we take right now will have a significant impact on our children, our children’s children, and future generations of all the planets inhabitants for millennia.
Climate change may seem like such a big problem that only governments and corporations can do anything to address it, but the truth is that everyone can make a difference every day.
- Roston E, Migliozzi B. “What’s Really Warming the World?” Bloomberg.com. Published June 24, 2015. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-whats-warming-the-world/.
- “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Last updated October 9, 2018. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions.
- “Carbon Footprint Calculator.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Last updated July 14, 2016. https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/.
- “Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.” Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Published May, 2009. https://www.dep.pa.gov/Business/Land/Waste/Recycling/PublicResources/Documents/0130-FS-DEP4126.pdf.
- “Reduce Your Carbon Footprint at Home.” Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Accessed December 7, 2018. https://www.mass.gov/service-details/reduce-your-carbon-footprint-at-home.
- “How You Can Help Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions at Home.” National Park Service. Last updated February 28, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/nature/climatechange_action_home.htm.
- “What You Can Do: At Home.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Last updated May 10, 2017. https://archive.epa.gov/epa/climatechange/what-you-can-do-home.html.
- Meier A. “Standby Power.” Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Accessed December 7, 2018. https://standby.lbl.gov/.
- “Carbon Footprint Factsheet.” Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. Published 2018. http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet.
- Weber CL, Matthews HS. “Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States.” Environ Sci Technol 42, no.10 (2008): 3508-3513. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18546681.
- “Climate Change Indicators: Greenhouse Gases.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Last updated February 22, 2017. https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/greenhouse-gases.