10 steps you can take to lower your carbon footprint

Small changes alone won’t stop climate change, but your actions are still worthwhile

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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Here’s the thing: Small changes alone won’t save our planet. To keep the Earth from warming above the critical 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) limit, climate action needs to happen at an institutional level. The Washington Post has built a tracker to keep you up to date on all of President’s Biden’s environmental actions.

But that doesn’t mean you should feel helpless, or that your actions aren’t worthwhile. Taking steps to lower your own carbon footprint may help ease your climate anxiety by giving you back some power — and even the smallest of actions will contribute to keeping our planet habitable.

With that in mind, here are 10 places to start.

1

Create less food waste

By Sarah Kaplan

The carbon footprint of U.S. food waste is greater than that of the airline industry. More greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture than from several forms of transportation combined. The environmental consequences of producing food that no one eats are massive.

The biggest proportion of food waste — about 37 percent, according to the nonprofit ReFED — happens in the home.

Keep a list of what food you have on hand and organize the refrigerator so you can keep track of what’s inside. Some people find it helpful to label things with the date they were purchased or cooked. Others have a system in which the oldest items go on the top shelf, so they will reach for those items first.

Want to effect change on a larger scale? You can also write to local officials and vote for laws that support food recovery and prevent waste from ending up in landfills.

Read more ideas for how to reduce food waste

2

Ditch your grass

By Tik Root

There are an estimated 40 million to 50 million acres of lawn in the continental United States — that’s nearly as much as all of the country’s national parks combined. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, maintaining those lawns consumes nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year, as well as 59 million pounds of pesticides, which can seep into our land and waterways.

Transportation Department data shows that in 2020, Americans used roughly 3 billion gallons of gasoline to run lawn and garden equipment. That’s the equivalent of nearly 6 million passenger cars running for a year.

Replacing grass with plants is among the most important ways to keep a yard eco-friendly. Laying down mulch is an easy place to start. It quickly kills grass and offers a blank canvas for planting.

“If you have lawn under a mature tree, convert it to a mulched area,” suggested Kathy Connolly, a Connecticut-based landscape designer, who recommends about six inches of raw arborist wood chips for the job. Connolly also recommends converting some of your lawn into paths, rock gardens or other features. “Ecologically, though,” she said, “the best thing to do is plant native trees and shrubs.”

Read more about how to make your lawn eco-friendly without making it an eyesore

3

Save coral reefs by packing smartly for your beach vacation

By Sunny Fitzgerald

Healthy marine ecosystems are essential for human well-being, and millions of people around the world rely on coral reefs for food, protection, recreation, medicine, cultural connection and economic opportunities. So the decline of coral reefs is not just an ocean-lover’s issue — it’s also a global problem that requires collaborative action.

There are plenty of ways travelers can do their part. To start, think about what you bring when you go to the beach.

Skip sunscreens and toiletries that contain oxybenzone and other chemicals and opt for mineral-based products instead. And remember to pack a reusable water bottle, utensils and bag, so you can avoid single-use plastic.

Read more about how to protect coral reefs while you travel

4

Shop sustainably by buying less

By Sarah Kaplan

Here’s the thing about sustainable shopping: There are very few things you can purchase that are actively beneficial for the climate. Unless you’re buying a tree that will suck carbon from the air, most products require land, water and fossil fuels to produce, use and transport. New stuff — clothes, appliances, bath products, toys, etc. — inherently comes at an environmental cost.

In many situations, the “greenest” product you can buy is … nothing. Unless your purchase represents a significant upgrade from what you already own — say, swapping out your old gas-guzzling car for an electric vehicle — you are better off trying to refurbish or repurpose existing items than acquiring more stuff. Instead of buying paper towels, tear up old T-shirts to use as rags. Give your family’s discarded books and toys to younger children in your neighborhood. Build your own “circular economy” in your community and your home.

Read more about how to decide if a product is good for the planet

5

Protect our forests

By Tik Root

Engaging with on-the-ground organizations as well as the policy process are a couple of ways that experts suggest individuals can encourage protection of the nation’s old-growth forests.

There are a number of groups that aim to help protect forests and old-growth trees. Joan Maloof, founder of the nonprofit Old-Growth Forest Network, said land trusts often buy and conserve land, and that the Land Trust Alliance runs findalandtrust.com to help connect people to organizations close to them.

“There are a lot of local organizations that speak out for their old-growth forest, too,” Maloof said. Nationally, she said there was a dearth of organizations advocating specifically for forest protection, which is why she started the Old-Growth Forest Network. But there are groups that have broader forest interests, such as promoting tree-planting and other restoration initiatives, including the Arbor Day Foundation and American Forests.

Read more about what you can do to protect the forests

6

Trade in for an electric car

By Sarah Kaplan

One of the most powerful individual actions people can take against climate change is to change the way they get around.

New electric vehicles can be expensive — even the most affordable have a suggested sale price between $30,000 and $40,000. But as more car manufacturers start producing EVs (General Motors has even said it will only make EVs by 2035), the cost of these cars is expected to come down. EVs also tend to have lower fuel and maintenance costs than gas-powered cars, making them cheaper over the course of their lifetimes than combustion engine vehicles, according to recent research from MIT.

Electric vehicle purchases also qualify for federal tax credits of up to $7,500. Depending on where you live, your city or state might also provide additional financial incentives to go electric. The Energy Department maintains a full list of rebates, tax credits and other programs offered in each state, and more are expected to become available as President Biden moves to expand the nation’s electric vehicle fleet.

If buying an electric car isn’t feasible for you right now — and you need a car to get around — a hybrid is the next-best thing.

Read more about what to consider if you are thinking about buying an electric vehicle

7

Weatherize your home

By Sarah Kaplan

Weatherization comes in many forms, but the easiest is closing up the cracks around windows and doors. According to the Energy Department, 25 to 30 percent of household heating and cooling is lost through windows. You can first identify leakage points by turning on your kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans, creating a slight pressure differential between indoors and outdoors, then holding up a lit incense stick to potential problem areas. If the smoke wavers or blows in one direction, there’s a draft that needs fixing. Use weatherstripping to insulate windows and install a sweep to the bottom of exterior doors.

In the summer, as soon as the sun rises, window shades should come down. Window glass is “one of the weakest links” in a building’s defense against solar radiation, buildings scientist Alexandra Rempel said, because it readily transmits heat. The best way to prevent this is to install exterior window coverings, like shutters or retractable awnings. If those aren’t an option, inside curtains or blinds are a good alternative. You can even cover a piece of cardboard in aluminum foil and press it into the window frame.

Read more tips on how to weatherize your home

8

Learn about the link between climate change and racial equity

By Sarah Kaplan

Climate scientists are clear that a just and equitable society isn’t possible on a planet that’s been destabilized by human activities.

One study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that Black and Hispanic communities in the United States are exposed to far more air pollution than they produce through actions such as driving and using electricity. In contrast, White Americans experience better air quality than the national average, even though their activities are the source of most pollutants.

Another paper in the journal Science found that climate change will cause the most economic harm in the nation’s poorest counties; many of those places, such as Zavala County, Tex., and Wilkinson County, Miss., are home to mostly people of color.

Understanding that climate change will disproportionally impact these communities is an important step toward battling global warming and creating a more just world.

Read more about how climate change and racial justice go hand-in-hand

9

Consider carbon offsets

By Sarah Kaplan

Without systemic changes in the way society functions — such as an electric grid powered completely by renewable energy or a food system that generates lower amounts of greenhouse gas emissions — it is pretty much impossible for a single person or even a large institution to go completely carbon-free.

“The whole purpose of offsets,” said University of California at Berkeley climate policy researcher Barbara Haya, “is to create a way for an individual or a company or a university to pay someone else to reduce emissions to cover emissions that they can’t reduce themselves.”

People can buy offsets for emissions from a specific activity, such as an international flight, or buy packages with names like “the green wedding carbon offset” and “balanced living bundle.”

But make sure you do your research. Examine the projects in the company’s portfolio. If they don’t list all projects and provide certifications, that’s a big red flag. Good projects should be permanent and enforceable. They must also be “additional” — efforts that wouldn’t happen if not funded by the offset, and that don’t simply shift emissions someplace else.

Read more about how offsets work and how to find reputable ones

10

Pass it on

Educating your peers is a great way to multiply your efforts. Share this article with your friends and family and help them take steps to make their lives a little more climate-friendly.

P.S. If you are a Post subscriber, you can “gift” this article — allowing anyone with the link to access it without the paywall — by clicking on the gift icon below.

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