Americans produce an average of 21 tons of carbon a year, about four times the global average, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The decisions you make each day can make a difference, but there is a lot of noise out there that can make it hard to know where to start. How effective is forgoing the straw in your soda or carrying a reusable coffee cup in your car in a battle as massive as climate change?
These are good small steps, environmental advocates say, although for a private citizen, the most effective action is to elect politicians who share your concerns and push local leaders to pursue climate-friendly policies.
But you can make a difference in global warming at home and in your community — and save yourself money in the process.
1. Commute like a European
Transportation accounts for the biggest share of America’s carbon footprint. Traditional cars burn fossil fuels, causing air pollution and contributing to smog, acid rain and global warming. Biking, walking or taking public transit are the best alternatives. When choosing a place to live, look for walkable areas with high-quality public transportation and lots of bike lanes.
2. When you do drive, plug in
“Most Americans can make the biggest dent in their individual carbon footprints by cutting transportation emissions — whether that’s by driving (and idling) less or choosing lower-carbon cars,” said Juanita Constible, a senior advocate for federal policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. About 60 percent of carbon pollution from transportation comes from passenger vehicles, while airplanes account for only 9 percent, she said, adding that if we can replace older, fossil-fuel cars with cars using renewably generated, zero-carbon electricity, we will address a significant part of the climate challenge.
Electric cars present some challenges, however. Some areas don’t have the infrastructure to support them, and the country needs a better cross-country network of charging stations, Constible said. Recent moves by the federal government have not helped, she said: “Unfortunately, the Trump administration is moving to weaken fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which will have the effect of increasing climate-changing pollution.”
3. Follow the sun
Much of the energy we use in our homes comes from power plants, which burn fossil fuels. Choose a utility company that generates at least 50 percent of its power from solar or wind. Better yet, install solar panels on your house. Some cities and states offer tax incentives, financing and grants that can make going solar cheap or even free. And using the sun to power your house is not only good for the environment, it can also save homeowners hundreds of dollars a year.
4. Caulk those cracks
In the immortal words of Leonard Cohen, there is a crack in everything — and this probably includes your house. Walk around your home holding a candle and watch to see where it flickers. Sealing air leaks around doors and windows cuts down on the use of heating and air conditioning, reducing energy consumption.
5. Update your appliances
The more energy-efficient an appliance is, the less it costs to operate. Look for the yellow and black Energy Guide label on new appliances to see their estimated annual energy consumption and compare that to similar models. Appliances with the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star logo are significantly more energy-efficient than the average comparable models, and cash rebates, low-interest loans and other incentives are often available for energy-efficient appliances.
6. Stay cool in the laundry room
Most laundry loads don’t need to be washed in hot water or dried on high heat. Washing with cold or cool water and drying on low or on an energy-efficient setting that switches to low partway through the cycle saves energy. It can also lengthen the life of your favorite T-shirt: All that heat stresses the fibers of material, so your clothes will thank you.
7. Eat like a horse — go veggie
If every American swapped one meat meal a week for an all-vegetarian meal, it would cut emissions, Constible said. Much of the food we buy is grown in other parts of the world, where meat production can wreak havoc on the environment.
“Beef and other meat products take a lot more land and water to raise, and also, cows and other large animals produce methane, and beef operations often expand into areas that are forest,” she said. “It doesn’t take becoming vegan; it just takes making a little change.”
8. Light the way to savings
If you haven’t done so yet, it’s time to stop thinking watts and start thinking lumens. Old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs are still available (albeit a more energy-efficient version than what Thomas Edison invented), but they are set to be phased out nationally by 2020. Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs last for years and use a fraction of the energy of incandescents. They are also versatile, allowing you to choose “daylight,” or white, light or more traditional yellow-colored illumination.
9. Lawns are so 20th century
In the place of that square of grass, give your yard over to native plants. “Native plants require less water and maintenance than nonnative varieties and provide more food sources for birds as our warming planet changes their habitats,” said John Rowden, director of community conservation at National Audubon Society. “A great thing people can do for the environment is stop mowing — which produces carbon. Not only will you get more time back on the weekends but the birds will love it.”
Use Audubon’s Plants for Birds guide: Type in your Zip code and get a list of trees and plants suitable for your area.
10. Take it on the road
Advocate for your city or state to use native plants on public land. After Hurricane Sandy decimated the New Jersey coast in 2012, residents began to realize how important local flora are in combating flooding and erosion. Last year, the state passed a law requiring that native plants be used in landscaping along roadways. The move could save the state money and also help protect wildlife along the highways.