Atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are rising at rates that are unprecedented, and so is the globe’s average temperature. We tend to think of big emitters as large companies or industry sectors. These groups are beginning to take climate action. But what about the cumulative impact of individual households?
A lot! Each gallon (3.7 liters) of gasoline burned produces in 19.4 pounds (8.8 kilograms) of carbon dioxide emissions. The average U. S. automobile emits 5.7 tons (5,200 kilograms) of carbon dioxide per year. Between 30 and 40% percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions each year come from the direct action of American households and their transportation decisions. That is 2.1 billion annual (metric) tons, or eight percent of the world’s total emissions!
Economizing on how much we use is a good financial move, especially with rising oil and electricity rates. Simple energy saving actions by regular citizens can also add up to tremendous reductions in our collective carbon footprint.
But new research show the significant benefit of 7 consumer actions that would be no-cost or low-cost. In “Individual Carbon Emissions: The Low-Hanging Fruit,” by Michael Vandenbergh of Vanderbilt University and his colleagues describe seven painless changes for individual consumers that add up to very significant emission reductions.
These consumer behavior changes are “low hanging fruit” that can be part of every household’s low carbon diet. By “low hanging,” Vandenbergh means these adjustments costs nothing or next to nothing to enact:
Together, these low-to-no-cost behavior changes alone would generate roughly 150 million tons in annual emissions reductions and several billion dollars in net social savings by 2014. That is the equivalent of removing 26 million automobiles from the road! They can be put into action immediately, and would generate a net social savings from lowered utility bills for households.
In the table below compiled from Vandenbergh’s research, the savings are based very conservative utility costs (e.g. $3/gallon for gasoline and $0.09/kWh for electricity). These costs are higher in New York (gas is $3.50/gallon and electric rates are around $0.12/kWh). So the annual savings for New York residents would be more significant, i.e. closer to between $700 and $1000 than the national average savings range I tallied below.
Cost to start
Savings to family (per year)
|Reduce Engine idling||
|Reduce Standby power||
|Install Compact fluorescents||
|Lower Thermostat settings||
|Lower Water temperatures||
|Maintain Tire pressure||
|Replace Air filters||
(Adapted from: Vandenbergh 2008, 19-20)
If sufficient Americans take these actions, we can reduce our emission by roughly 150 million tons of carbon dioxide per year—while saving money.
Here are some details of each of the seven consumer actions. Since Vandenbergh writes so clearly, his owns words below (in italic) will do most of the talking.
Modern car engines need almost no warm up. Few of us realize restarting a warm engine consumes less fuel and emits less pollution than idling for 5 to10 seconds. “If a vehicle will idle for more than 5 to 10 seconds, shutting the engine off and restarting it when the driver is ready to resume driving typically will not only reduce fuel consumption, but also will reduce wear and tear on the engine, improve fuel economy, and improve the performance of catalytic converters. For idle times of 45 seconds or more, the savings in fuel consumption and engine maintenance from shutting off the engine vastly exceed the minor wear-and-tear associated with restarting the engine.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 24)
Many electronic devices use power all day and night, from cell phone chargers to televisions, whether anyone is home or in the room. Home computer and wireless networks and home entertainment centers with flat screen televisions are big standby power hogs. So are most devices with a remote control. A quick solution is to cut off power to any such systems at night by switching off the power strip into which they are plugged. Eventually, the government Energy Star program must mandate that manufacturers use lower wattage settings for standby draw. Using energy monitoring smart power strips ($30-60) in a home or office could pay for itself within a year.
“Some large-screen televisions can use as much power in standby mode as a refrigerator. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 40 percent of electricity consumption by home electronics occurs in standby mode. Certain appliances, such as microwave ovens and video recorders (VCRs), actually consume more electricity over the course of a year running their clock displays in standby mode than they do while in use.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 32)
We can replace 10% of the nation’s 3.1 billion incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents (CFL) if every American household swap 3 CLF bulbs for the old ones. CFLs use 75% less electricity for the same amount of light and last 2 to 4 times longer.
“Unlike many other emissions-generating technologies, light bulb turnover is quite rapid. The common [incandescent bulb] has a life of only 1,000 hours, so CFLs can be substituted quickly, and they produce significant short-term emissions reductions. Further, CFL prices have dropped dramatically in the past few years, and consumers are now able to purchase these bulbs for less than $3 per bulb. This means the CFL payback to the consumer will occur within months after purchase.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 40)
Lowering the thermostat slightly in winter and raising it slightly in summer could save $125 a year in costs per household and add up to big emission reductions. With proper insulation in our attics and sill plates, we may not notice any difference in comfort. “We believe a modest two degree Fahrenheit (F) change in ambient indoor temperatures, combined with a more significant reduction in overnight winter temperatures, does not constitute a significant lifestyle adjustment. The range of annual savings derived from a two-degree F change in summer and winter temperatures runs from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of CO2 per household, depending on the source of the energy used for home heating and cooling, the efficiency of existing equipment, current temperature settings, and other factors. ” (Vandenbergh 2008, 45)
We may rarely think of our water heaters as overworking. Lowering the water heater setting by 20 degrees Fahrenheit would make very little difference in our comfort level and yield an everyday savings in energy and emissions. With proper insulation around our hot water delivery pipes, we may not notice any difference in comfort. Confession: in researching this column, I discovered our basement has 30 feet of new un-insulated hot water pipe-soon to be remedied!
“Many hot water heaters are installed with a default temperature setting of 140-150 degrees F, when in most cases temperatures of 115 or 120 degrees F will be perfectly adequate to meet households needs. Individuals can adjust the temperature settings by themselves with only a small time cost and without any financial cost. The financial savings from reducing temperatures by 20 degrees F would be about $24 to $40 per year per household.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 47)
Our cars produce roughly half the total greenhouse gas emissions over which consumers have direct control. Given gasoline prices this summer, proper air pressure in tires makes good financial sense. A good tire gauge is less than $10.
“The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that vehicle gas mileage improves an average of 3.3 percent by inflating tires regularly to proper pressures. Tire gauges are inexpensive, and routine oil changes often include tire inflation as a matter of course. The low-hanging fruit action is simply to get the U.S. public to check and maintain tire pressure on a consistent basis. A two-car family could save about $120 per year by taking this action.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 49)
I know I just assume my car’s air filters will be replaced at the regular tune ups every 15,000 miles or so. But from now on, I will check to be sure.
“Gasoline savings alone from changing an air filter at the recommended interval total about $240 per year. As a result, it is cost effective for the individual to maintain a regular schedule for changing filters. Periodic air filter changes can save the vehicle owner anywhere from 7 to 10 percent in fuel mileage.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 50-51).
The bottom line is, by adopting these low hanging fruit, we can save money and reduce our emissions with very little upfront expense. We don’t have to wait for massive government programs. We can take ownership over making a difference-one household at a time.
Editor’s Note: The author is a former Village of Croton-on-Hudson Trustee who served three terms from 2001 to 2007.
Source: Vandenbergh, M, Barkenbus J, Gilligan J. “Individual Carbon Emissions: Low Hanging Fruit.” UCLA Law Review, 2008. http://ssrn.com/abstract=1161143