A Victory Garden for the Planet

At a recent board meeting, NRDC's staff and trustees discussed what big ideas the new administration could propose to engage the American people in solving our tied economic and environmental problems, the way all Americans helped win World War II.

Our challenge to curb global warming is often compared to the challenge of the great war. Americans pulled together by joining the armed forces or the workforce to produce war materiel, building victory gardens and recycling metal.  What should the new President ask of Americans to help us pull together in the fight for our planet?

The top suggestion at our Board meeting was to recommend that President-elect Obama ask all Americans to work with him in lowering energy use by 10 percent in two years.  All energy -- meaning electricity, transportation fuels, and the energy embedded in the goods we buy and the foods we eat.

What would that accomplish? Well, a 10 percent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from the United States would be about a 2.5 percent worldwide reduction -- about two years of average growth.

It would also be a way to educate Americans about the new lower-carbon world we must create; it would send a signal to the world about new American engagement. A 10 percent energy cut here in the United States would reduce CO2 emissions by about 600 million metric tons annually. It would take the pressure off to build dozens of new power plants.  It would save thousands of lives from reduced pollution, and save us all money.  It would lower the price of gas and home heating oil.

And how would people do that?  It’s really not all that hard. My family, for example,  reduced our own electricity bill by more than 35 percent simply by switching most lights to compact fluorescents and getting much better about turning off lights. Plugging our computers and all associated electronics into a power strip that we turned off many nights surely helped. (I’d like to say most nights, but probably cannot do so honestly.)  And we turned off those unnecessary outdoor lights at night. Holiday present idea: motion sensors for outdoor lights!

Transportation? A 10 percent reduction? My family did not measure this ourselves, but many other studies show that maintaining your car, inflating tires, and driving more moderately (i.e. closer to the speed limit) can get you to a 10 percent cut. A friend took a course offered by his company to its truck drivers on driving habits and reduced his fuel costs by 8 percent; the company average reduction was almost 20 percent. And each week take one more trip by foot, mass transit or car pool and you’re clearly close to the 10 percent goal.  Can you train rather than fly?  Or do one less trip and instead have one more phone call or video conference?

The rest of your life?  Turning the summer thermostat up or the winter thermostat down can save a lot (according to the Energy Savings Trust, turning your thermostat down by just 2 degrees Fahrenheit can save up to 10 percent of your energy bill). And it gives you a reason to wear all those sweaters your mother has given you over the years.

Of course, insulating your house is likely to pay back very quickly.  Can you read the paper online rather than get daily delivery? Do a better job recycling? (Recycling just one aluminum can saves enough energy to keep your TV running for three hours).

Or finally what about skipping red meat a couple of times a week since a pound of beef has 11 times as much greenhouse gas impact as a pound of chicken, and 100 times that of a pound of carrots. See an interesting piece in the New York Times: As More Eat Meat, a Bid to Cut Emissions.

NRDC has many other tips for lowering your environmental footprint. You can find them on NRDC's Simplesteps website.

A 21st century victory garden would be a national commitment to reduce all energy use by 10 percent in two years. Victory gardens alone didn’t win World War II, but they helped the war effort and most importantly they set a tone; this would too.