You really don't have an excuse anymore.
It's never been easier to reduce your contribution to global warming, and you don't have to dig deep into your wallet to get started. Sure, shelling out for solar to power your home or for a hybrid car will have a big impact, but there are plenty of ways to start small right now. And those reductions add up over time.
"Greenhouse gases come from thousands, even millions of different types of activities," said Judi Greenwald, director of innovative solutions at Pew Center on Global Climate Change, in Arlington, Va. "It's not going to be one thing you do that's going to do it. It's adding it all up."
You may reap benefits beyond a healthier environment and lower energy bills. Maybe you want that laptop computer because it's portable, but it also uses less energy than your old desktop.
Same goes for flat-panel computer screens versus their clunky predecessors, and the latest dishwashers and other appliances are often quieter and have added features.
And don't focus solely on energy-efficient appliances and compact-fluorescent light bulbs. You can reduce carbon emissions when you choose how you take your next vacation or what you eat for dinner. You can even find an energy-efficient mortgage.
Our homes and cars are prime sources of carbon emissions. Residential energy use nationally produced 21 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2005, while office-property energy use contributed 18 percent, industrial sites produced another 28 percent and transportation overall represents 33 percent, said Evan Mills, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and founder of the Home Energy Saver Web site.
Simply driving smarter will reduce climate change.
"The better mileage you get, the more fuel you save, the less carbon dioxide you're emitting," said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist and policy analyst with Consumer Reports. "Inflating your tires, getting your oil changed regularly, keeping your car tuned up: Those things can go a long way to improving your fuel mileage."
Slowing down helps, too. "Driving 65 miles per hour versus 75 miles per hour can save you up to 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, even more if you drive an SUV," Rangan said. That decrease in speed improves your mileage by about 15 percent.
Buy your way to a healthier planet?
Consumers now can also buy into carbon offset programs, which let you pay to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere.
Look for a carbon-offset program that funds emission-reductions that wouldn't have happened without your money — an idea called "additionality" — otherwise, you're giving your money to a program that would have happened anyway.
But some say consumers should first reduce their own emissions. While carbon-offset programs are useful, they aren't enough to solve the problem, said Anja Kollmuss, an associate scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute, affiliated with Tufts University.
"The average American produces so much carbon dioxide that even if every American offset their whole emission, that wouldn't really protect the climate," she said.
An average American produces about 19 to 20 tons of carbon dioxide per year, versus about 10 tons on average for a Western European, and about 3 tons on average per Chinese, she said.
Plus, carbon offsets cost money. Reducing one's own emissions often results in lower energy bills. "From a purely economic perspective, it makes sense for people to look at how they can reduce their emissions before they go out and buy offsets," Kollmuss said.
10 planet-cooling steps
1. Buy locally-grown food. "About 10 percent of all the energy used in America goes to farming food, processing food, transporting food, from the seed to the plate," said Denis Hayes, coordinator of the first Earth Day and now president of the Bullitt Foundation, in Seattle, Wash. "If you can just buy that same vegetable from somebody that lives on the outskirts of your community, the energy savings are stunning."
Another plan: Eat less red meat. "The production of red meat — pork and beef — is incredibly energy-intensive," Kollmuss said. "I'm not advocating people become vegetarian, but just that people are aware that if they eat beef, their impact is much larger than if they eat vegetarian or eat poultry."
Also, choose local, grass-fed beef. Most U.S. beef is fed on corn, which requires more energy to produce, said Warren Karlenzig, chief strategy officer at SustainLane.com, which ranks cities on environmental sustainability. "It's not 'don't eat meat.' It's being choosier about the meat you do eat and how often you eat it," he said.
2. Take a different vacation. Shell out for direct flights, if you can afford it. "Most emissions are produced by landing and takeoff; the largest amount of fuel is used," Kollmuss said.
Avoid first-class. "You take up much more space," Kollmuss said. "Your impact is two to six times greater if you fly business or first class." Of course, the plane flies anyway, but Kollmuss said if enough consumers choose economy class, airlines will eventually respond.
Also, opt for a smaller rental car or a hybrid, now available in some areas, and stay at resorts which embrace the principles of sustainable tourism. See related story.
3. Work right. Ask your employer to buy recycled paper, Mills said, and "think twice before you print something." You reduce carbon emissions by using less electricity while printing, plus emissions related to making and processing the paper and print cartridge.
When you step away from your desk, turn off the monitor, and turn off or set your computer to sleep when you leave for the day. If you work at home, the next time you buy a new computer, printer, fax, scanner or copier, buy one that's Energy Star certified, and make sure you set up that product's "sleep" feature so it saves energy when not in use.
Consider more conference calls to reduce business travel, Greenwald said. Or, "you can try to combine trips, and try to do several meetings in one trip."
4. Get a home-energy audit. Making repairs prompted by an audit can improve your home's energy efficiency by as much as 25 percent, Rangan said. "It's all about leaks and drafts." An audit can reveal the most cost-effective improvements. For instance, it's often much more cost-effective to get your house insulated than to get new windows.
Ask your utility company, or do your own home-energy audit.
Thinking about moving? Consider going smaller. "We've been turning our houses into the functional equivalent of sports utility vehicles. American houses have been getting bigger and bigger as family size gets smaller and smaller," Hayes said. That means more energy to heat, cool, light and clean. Watch video about small homes.
And consider moving to a "greener" location. "The choice about where you live has probably the most profound carbon impact on a person's life," Karlenzig said. "Can you walk to a store? Can your kids walk or bike to school? Can you walk to public transportation?"
5. Go higher-tech. Laptops use substantially less energy than desktop. For your desktop, buy a flat-panel monitor — they use half the energy of an average CRT, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Even earlier forms of "high tech" are useful. "A microwave is definitely an energy saver," Mills said. "They use much less energy to make a cup of tea than putting water on your stove."
6. Unplug. About 5 percent of electricity used in the U.S. is sucked up by home electronics products that are off, according to the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of business and government leaders.
"If you're going on vacation, unplug all of your televisions, stereos, they are sucking a little energy all the time," Rangan said. And, if you don't want to install compact fluorescent bulbs, consider installing dimmer switches. "If you have it set at half dim, it's using half the wattage," she said.
7. Take a different ride. Hybrids are the gold standard in terms of reducing emissions, but you don't have to go hybrid, Hayes said. Choose the most fuel-efficient car in the category you need. "If everybody just made the transition to the most efficient vehicle in their category, it would save more oil than we currently import from the Middle East," Hayes said. "That's without changing lifestyles at all. You're still buying a van."
Walking or biking are other options, and keep your eye out for ride-share possibilities. Many urban areas have car-share programs. A new Web site in New York, Hitchsters.com, connects you with people to share airport taxi rides.
8. Buy alternative energy. If you can't afford to install solar panels on your home, consider buying alternative energy through your public utility. "The electrons that come out of the wind turbine don't necessarily flow into your light bulb, but they do displace electricity that would have flowed from a non-green source," Hayes said. Not all companies offer this option.
Another idea: Purchase "green tags," which fund the development of alternative energy sources.
9. Avoid the excess. Given that it takes energy to produce stuff and that landfills produce greenhouse gases, it makes sense to avoid unnecessary packaging when you can. Re-use shopping bags, buy products with the least amount of packaging, and consume less overall.
10. Use less water. Water must be pumped to your faucet — often over long distances. In California, water is one of the largest consumers of energy, Karlenzig said. Turn off the water when you're brushing your teeth or shaving. If you have a newer dishwasher, you don't need to pre-rinse, he said. In the garden, use an irrigation system rather than a hose, and think about avoiding large, water-intensive lawns in favor of native plants which require less watering.
Copyright (c) 2007 MarketWatch, Inc.