With glaciers melting, seas rising, wildfires raging, and storms intensifying, Americans have awakened to the reality of climate change. The majority now understands that global warming is happening; is caused by humans burning fossil fuels; and is causing the climate to change. People are asking how they can do their part to reduce their carbon footprints.
Americans emit 16.5 metric tons of carbon emissions per person per year, according to the World Bank, the highest per capita emissions in the world. While per capita emissions have declined since the peak in 1973 of 22.5 metric tons, we are still way above the required reductions to limit global warming to 2oC (3.6 oF), which is 2.1 metric tons per capita per year.
There are a variety of actions you can take to get on a path to a lower personal carbon footprint and work toward ensuring a lower carbon future:
- Transportation: Passenger vehicles emit 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year on average, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So getting out of your car and taking public transit; carsharing; riding your bike; and walking are all important to do as much as you possibly can. As fossil fuels are removed from powering the electric grid, switching to an electric vehicle if you can afford to do so is also an important action to take. When purchasing a new car, aim for the highest possible miles per gallon vehicle you can afford. Limit air travel if you can and offset your carbon emissions when you fly through a reputable offset program.
- Food: Food production is responsible for roughly one-quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. A study by Oxford University published in July 2014 in Climatic Change found that greenhouse gas emissions from meat eaters are 50-54% higher than those of vegetarians and 99% higher than vegans. Methane produced from agriculture, waste management, and energy use is the second largest cause of climate change behind fossil fuels, according to the EPA. Eat a plant-based diet as often as possible, buy organic and local if you can, and don’t waste food. Grow your own food, if you like to garden and have the ability to do so.
- Energy and Water: Use energy-efficient light bulbs; unplug all appliances that you are not using or turn off power strips; install a programmable thermostat (and use it!) and move your thermostat up 2o in the summer and down 2o in the winter. Make sure you buy Energy Star appliances; winterize to prevent heat from escaping; get an energy audit to determine where you can improve your home’s energy efficiency. See these tips from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the Department of Energy’s top four inventions to save energy and money at home. Take shorter showers, purchase low-flow shower heads and sink faucets, and wash full loads of laundry.
- Clothing—Laundry: Wash clothes using the cold or tap water setting (not hot); nearly 90% of the energy used by washing machines heats the water. The Sierra Club found that washing in cold water can save 1,600 pounds of annual carbon dioxide emissions per household. Hang dry whenever you can. See this New York Times article for how to reduce carbon emissions when doing your laundry.
- Clothing—Purchasing: The apparel and footwear sectors accounted for 8% of global carbon emissions in 2016, according to a report by Quantis that measured the fashion industry’s environmental impact. The EPA estimates that Americans threw away more than 21 billion pounds of clothing and other textiles into landfills in 2015, up from 12.5 billion pounds in 2000 and 4.6 billion in 1980. This hot-off-the press article in Scientific American is a useful read to understand the impacts of secondhand shopping on the apparel industry’s carbon emissions and environmental impact.
- Waste: Consume less and waste less. Share, fix, repurpose, and compost. A study released in June 2019 by C40 Cities found that consumption of goods and services is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse emissions. Learn what can be recycled and how and what can’t. In other words, don’t be an “optimistic recycler”—someone who tosses something into the recycle bin that isn’t recyclable—because non-recyclable items moving through a waste management facility can disrupt equipment and slow processing. Educate yourself on where things go by consulting sites, such as the City of Seattle’s Where Does It Go? resource.
- Renewable Energy: Put up solar panels or donate funding to community solar projects. Buy slices of renewable energy projects. Purchase green power from your utility if it offers you the option to do so.
- Divestment: If you are invested in the stock market, tell your financial advisor you want to divest your portfolio of fossil fuels.
- Advocacy: Tell elected officials that they need to pass policies to address climate change (carbon pricing; low-carbon fuels standards; zero-emission car mandates; incentives for renewables and electric vehicles; strict building codes, among many others). Never underestimate the impact of calling and meeting your representatives to your state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. Here is how you can contact your elected officials.
- Voting: Register and vote in every election for candidates who will fight for climate policy.
- Education: Learn the facts about the effects of global warming. Don’t be swayed by misinformation and the manufactured doubt that the fossil fuel industry has invested millions of dollars to deny the reality of climate change.
- Support Climate Advocacy Groups: Donate to nonprofit organizations that are working to address climate change. Volunteer for organizations in your community that are focused on addressing climate change.
- Communicate: Tell everyone you know that you care about climate change. Talk to family members about the issues. When coming from a place of shared values and trust, awareness about climate change increases. Discuss what you are doing personally, the ways that you are getting engaged, and encourage your friends and family to do the same. Listen actively to your friends and family who are confused or uncertain about the reality of climate change and help educate them with what you have learned.
While it is likely infeasible for you to do all of these, trying to incorporate some into your life will accomplish two things: (1) you will begin to reduce your personal carbon footprint, and (2) you will join the growing number of people who recognize that the Earth’s atmospheric temperature is rising due to human behavior and that all of us have an important role in doing all we can to reverse that trend.
If you are interested in learning how the Northwest can economically and technically achieve deep decarbonization by 2050, please consult Meeting the Challenge of Our Time: Pathways to a Clean Energy Future for the Northwest.