As the hard realities of climate change become clearer in our daily lives, taking responsibility for mitigating these effects is a front-of-mind issue. But meaningful change does not mean a grim life of deprivation. New habits and energy-smart investments can make a real difference.
Peter LaPuma, of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, recommends finding an activity that fits your budget and energy level.
“Treat it like something that’s fun and get into it,” he said. “Learn about an energy-saving activity enough to where you feel comfortable with it; then move on to the next activity.”
For this project we relied on the expertise of LaPuma and Sabrina McCormick, both associate professors of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University, to explain meaningful ways each person can reduce the rapid rate of climate change and contribute to a healthier planet.
Below you can learn about the most effective ways you can help the planet, according to the experts. There are four categories of activities, which include ways to reduce home energy use, be an eco-friendly diner, be a sustainable shopper, and travel while limiting emissions. We’ve also include how much money, time and effort is required for each activity.
No matter how much time and money you have, you can help stave off the effects of climate change.
When your home is properly insulated, heat is held in during the winter and kept out during the summer. More insulation means less energy is used for heating and cooling. Using less electricity, natural gas, propane or heating oil reduces carbon emissions. The cost of insulation depends on the size of the home, but you can save money by insulating walls yourself.
High-efficiency windows help create a tight “envelope” so your house doesn’t lose temperature-controlled air to the outside. If you’re a renter and new windows aren’t an option, try reflective blinds, insulated curtains or window film. By cutting down on drafts in the winter and reducing radiant heat during the summer, these alternatives to high-efficiency windows can reduce the energy used to heat and cool your home. “It’s the low-tech stuff that is the most economical,” said LaPuma.
Programmable thermostats make it easy to control the temperature of your home when it is unoccupied. Consider bumping up the thermostat a few degrees in the summer and letting it fall a few degrees in the winter. The cost of a programmable thermostat varies, but owning one puts less demand on heating and cooling appliances, lowers your bills and cuts how much carbon your utility company burns.
Think of fresh water as the precious, limited resource that it is. Depending on how much you shorten your shower, you can save hundreds of gallons of water per month. By making the water a bit cooler, you’ll use less energy to heat it, which will decrease your carbon footprint.
By monitoring the water temperature, you can minimize the work of your water heater and cut in half the amount of energy required for a load of laundry. Reducing the energy needed to increase the temperature in your water heater translates to less demand from the utility that powers the appliance. Less energy production means less carbon fuels burned and fewer emissions into the atmosphere.
Clothes dryers are one of the most energy-consumptive appliances in the home. When you give your dryer the day off, your laundry benefits from the free, stain-fighting and sanitizing power of the sun, and your energy utility burns less carbon-emitting fuel. By running your dryer at maximum efficiency, on lower heat settings and free of lint, you minimize carbon-generating energy needs with each load.
LEED homes — houses with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification — pass high standards for efficient energy and water use. Installing appliances and plumbing fixtures that sip water and electricity reduce overall consumption. The day-to-day savings add up to a marked decrease in your carbon footprint and cost of living.
Clean sources of energy such as solar and wind power are renewable and can be replaced naturally — unlike gasoline, natural gas, coal and fossil fuels. “If everybody made this selection, it would encourage a large-scale transition to renewable resources,” said McCormick. “Choosing renewable energy is low-hanging fruit that could have a major impact.” By electing to get your power from clean energy, you vote with your feet to invest in energy production that does not burn carbon. Ask your utility company how to opt in to renewable energy.
Products certified by the Environmental Protection Agency meet strict efficiency standards and use less power than noncertified competitors. The National Resources Defense Council rates dryers as the energy vampires of the appliance world (PDF, 276 KB), with refrigerators close behind. But reducing your carbon footprint doesn’t have to mean a return to iceboxes and air drying. Replacing old and inefficient appliances with EPA-certified models costs more upfront but saves money and power over the long run. That means less fuel is burned to create your electricity.
Support companies that make environmentally friendly choices like committing to recycling and renewable energy. “Younger consumers especially favor companies who are walking the walk when it comes to environmental stewardship,” said LaPuma. Environmentally sustainable changes by large retailers like IKEA and Starbucks pressure other industries to follow suit.
The “last mile” — the final leg from production to consumer — used to mean a trip from the store to your home. All your purchases would be loaded into the trunk of your relatively fuel-efficient vehicle. Now, single items take that journey in delivery trucks and vans. To make online shopping more efficient, click “purchase” only after your shopping cart is stocked, and select the slower, “ship my packages together” option. For bonus points, pick up your packages at a centrally located center while you’re already out running errands.
Finding clothes, appliances and furnishings ready for their next act has never been easier. Online classified sections, social networking sites and thrift stores are great ways to save quality items from the landfill. You’ll reduce carbon emissions to produce new stuff and save money.
Recycling significantly reduces carbon emissions. But failing to properly sort your recyclables can undo all the effort. Keep trash and recyclables separate: The work it takes to separate household garbage from recycling can reduce energy savings.
The ready availability of all produce in all seasons requires an industry that transports fresh produce across thousands of miles. Support locally grown produce and cut the carbon cost of transportation by eating what is ripe in your geographic region. You are likely to get fresher, more delicious produce that traveled fewer miles to get to you.
Minimize the amount of packaging your food comes in. LaPuma gives this advice: “The best rule of thumb is to get rid of anything disposable in your life,” like plastic bags and cutlery, gum and diapers. Each layer of plastic and cardboard between you and the thing you consume takes energy to produce and contributes to waste that will take hundreds of years to decompose.
This is one activity that allows you to shrink a growing carbon footprint while increasing your activity and intake of fresh vitamins and minerals. Plants, bushes and trees suck carbon dioxide out of the air, meaning your backyard hobby can reduce the amount of gas already in the environment. According to LaPuma, “When it comes to food, you’re going to benefit most when you know what went into it and when you grow your own.”
The energy used to harvest, process and transport food is squandered when it is discarded. Although more social programs seek to offset food excess through donations, each of us can reduce the outlay of resources and carbon emissions by buying only what we will eat.
Supporting restaurants that are making ecologically healthy decisions is a great way to spend your dining dollar. By frequenting businesses that buy and prepare local, seasonal produce, you support local farmers whose carbon outlay is much smaller because they don’t have to transport their produce long distances.
Maintaining your engine, keeping your tires properly inflated, using the correct motor oil weight and having a clean air filter can save a few cents per gallon per activity, according to the EPA. Some or all of these activities are simple enough to do yourself. For those with more money than time, a mechanic can take care of it all. By burning less gas per mile, you decrease carbon emissions of your fuel-burning vehicle. A happy side effect: longer-lasting tires and engines.
Consumers have many options for vehicles that use electricity to power their engines some or all of the time. Using less gasoline reduces or eliminates the average 4.6 tons of carbon emitted by a typical U.S. passenger vehicle, according to emissions data from the EPA. With a plug-in vehicle, motorists select renewable power from their utility company to charge a car. Whether you select a hybrid or fully electric vehicle, the return on this investment means burning less fossil fuel.
Burn less fossil fuel and more calories. Committing to a bike commute, even a few days a week, can reduce the mileage on your car and gallons of gasoline used. Errands and trips to visit friends also add up. Enjoy some feel-good exercise and reduce traffic headaches. Whatever trips can be made on bike or by foot will reduce your carbon emission footprint. If your commute is too long, try setting up a carpool.
For short trips, drive or take the train, particularly in the Northeast corridor where traffic is dense and trains service many locations. If you can’t fly less, choose a nonstop flight or chip in for carbon offsets that are often made available through airlines.
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