Small Actions Add Up to Big Cuts in Global Warming Pollution

I spend a lot of my working hours fighting to pass clean energy and climate legislation that will reduce America’s global warming pollution. But I also take steps in my personal life to cut down my own carbon emissions.

I stopped eating red meat and stick with vegetarian options most of the week, I installed compact florescent light bulbs, I signed up for renewable power through my utility Con Edison, and I take public transit to work.

What good do individual efforts like these achieve in the face of the biggest environmental and humanitarian crisis of our time? They do a ton of good, actually.

New analysis confirms that if Americans adopted a series of personal actions that require little or no cost, the United States could avoid 1 billion tons of emissions annually. That is nearly 15 percent of current national emissions and is roughly equivalent to the total emissions of Germany, the largest polluter in Western Europe.

Last week, NRDC’s Executive Director Peter Lehner presented these findings at a conference at the Garrison Institute’s Climate Mind Behavior Project. NRDC collaborated on the report with the Garrison Institute’s Project, which is part of a larger effort to integrate research about what drives human behavior into new thinking on climate solutions.

I find this vein of research fascinating and inspiring. I am a firm believer in the need for government action. Individual efforts alone can not influence how many coal-fired power plants are built or how many millions of acres of tropical rainforest are destroyed.

But taken together, small behavioral changes and personal actions can become a significant weapon in our battle to reduce emissions.

Take this no-cost example. The average household computer is left in idle mode for a 6,000 hours per year, while other “phantom” energy losses from standby mode on cell phones, cable boxes, or video game consoles account for 5 to 15 percent of household energy use. Setting our computers to automatic hibernate, unplugging idle electronics, and unplugging the extra refrigerator in the garage could save almost 60 million metric tons of carbon emissions by 2020. These steps will also save us money. Unplugging that extra fridge alone could easily save $200 to $300 per year.

Or consider the difference our food choices can make. The global livestock industry is responsible for roughly 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impact of red meat is so significant that simply dropping red meat one day per week would reduce global warming pollution as much as eating only locally-grown products all week--a staggering fact considering the average distance our food travels from farm to fork is about 1,500 miles.

Numbers like these inspired me to stop buying red meat and start gardening and composting. If I were the only American taking these steps, they wouldn’t make the least amount of difference in our nation’s efforts to reduce global warming emissions. But if all of us join in--and receive incentives to do so through smart policies--then we can make a ton of difference.

To see how simple actions could—if adopted by enough of us—eliminate climate-altering emissions, click here.