How You Can Help Fight Climate Change

It’s true that aggressive policies and laws are crucial to save the planet. But carbon-cutting actions by individuals can also make a dent (especially when corporations and elected officials take note!). Here are some easy, concrete ways you can make a difference.

Anna Godeassi

“If there’s a world here in a hundred years, it’s going to be saved by tens of millions of little things.”

Pete Seeger

Rising sea levels. Raging storms. Searing heat. Ferocious fires. Severe drought. Punishing floods. The effects of climate change are already threatening our health, our communities, our economy, our security, and our children’s future.

What can you do? A whole lot, as it turns out. Americans, on average, produce 21 tons of carbon a year, about four times the global average.

Personal action is, of course, no substitute for meaningful government policies. We still must limit carbon pollution and aggressively move away from dirty fossil fuels toward cleaner power.

But we can’t wait for Washington to act. Join the growing list of cities, states, tribes, and companies who’ve pledged to take climate action. Then honor your commitment every day by following the tips below.

“Change only happens when individuals take action,” Aliya Haq, NRDC’s Climate and Energy special projects director, says. “There’s no other way, if it doesn’t start with people.”

In the Home

Use only LED bulbs.

LEDs use as little as 10 percent of the energy of incandescent bulbs. And because the average American home has around 40 to 50 lightbulbs, this is a simple swap that will reap huge rewards. If every household in the United States replaced just one incandescent with an Energy Star–labeled LED, we would prevent seven billion pounds of carbon pollution per year. That’s equivalent to the emissions of about 648,000 cars.

Invest in energy-efficient appliances. 

Since the Energy Star program’s inception in 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates it has reduced climate-altering pollution by more than 2.7 billion metric tons—equivalent to the annual emissions of 700 coal-fired power plants—while saving consumers $430 billion in energy costs.

A 15-year-old refrigerator, for example, uses twice as much energy as a new, Energy Star‒certified model. Replacing that old fridge could prevent 5,000 pounds of carbon pollution and cut your utility bill by as much as $260 over five years. (The EPA offers a refrigerator retirement calculator to estimate the savings.)

Recycle old appliances.

Recycling an old refrigerator through the EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal Program can prevent an additional 10,000 pounds of carbon pollution because the global-warming pollutants in the refrigerants and foam would be properly captured rather than vented to the air.

Some utilities offer financial incentives for recycling old appliances or buying new, energy-efficient models. Consumers can search for incentives online or call their utility. The Energy Star site has information on rebates.

Keep your electronics from drawing excess energy.

American homes, on average, have about 65 devices connected to a power source. Electric devices such as smart phones, cordless vacuums, and power tools use energy even when they’re not charging. In the United States, that “idle load” is equal to the output of 50 large power plants.  

Unplug rarely used devices, such as televisions in guest rooms. Plug others into power strips or “smart” outlets so they draw power only when needed. Use timers for items you might forget to turn on and off, like coffeemakers.

Set your computer to go to sleep after 30 minutes or less of inactivity, and turn it off when you’re finished using it.

Disable the “instant on” mode on your game console, and turn off the “quick start” option and automatic brightness control (ABC) sensor on your television.

Adjust your washing machine settings, and clean the dryer lint filter after each cycle.

Water heating consumes a significant amount of the energy it takes to operate a clothes washer. Switch to cold as your default water temperature. Or, if you’re not comfortable with that, at least try the warm setting: It can cut in half the energy used to heat the water.

Also, always wait until you have a full load. If you simply must wash a smaller load, adjust the water-level setting.

And be sure to clean your dryer’s lint filter after each use. Along with being a fire hazard, a clogged filter impedes airflow and reduces a dryer’s efficiency.

Consider a heat pump water heater or a hybrid model.

Hot-water production accounts for 13 percent of residential energy use—second only to space heating. Even modest improvements can deliver large benefits. 

Heat pump water heaters, which draw heat from the surrounding air, use less than one-third as much electricity as a conventional electric model, and hybrid heat pumps use less than half as much. They’re both more expensive than conventional electric water heaters, but utility rebates and tax credits may be available. And remember, the efficiency will lead to lower utility bills.

Insulate, insulate, insulate.

Up to one-third of home heat escapes through windows and doors, so if you're feeling a draft, weather-strip your windows and use caulk to plug leaks, then hang heavier drapes. Properly insulating your walls and attic will also help preserve heat, energy, and money—in fact, all these improvements could cut your heating bill by 25 percent. The U.S. Department of Energy provides weatherization assistance to low-income households. The program saves households an average of $283 a year in energy costs and reduces carbon pollution by more than two million metric tons a year.

Replace drafty old windows with double-paned, Energy Star–rated windows.

This upgrade could cut carbon pollution by 2.4 tons per year for homes with gas heat, 3.9 tons with oil heat, and 9.8 tons with electric heat. A less expensive option is storm windows, which are temporary, install easily over existing windows, and can reduce heat loss by 25 percent to 50 percent. (If you're renting or can't replace your windows this year, you can apply low-emissive—also called low-E—film over them to reduce heat loss.)

Make sure your fridge and freezer doors seal tightly when closed.

Try the dollar-bill test. If a bill shut in the door is easy to pull out, it’s time to replace the gaskets.

Use a programmable thermostat.

Automatically adjust temperature settings when you’re away or sleeping. You could cut energy use by 20 percent to 30 percent, relative to always running your air conditioner or furnace. WiFi- or Bluetooth-enabled devices let you adjust settings from a smartphone.

Check the air filter on your furnace every month.

A dirty furnace filter will slow airflow and make the system work harder, increasing energy costs and possibly leading to expensive maintenance. So if it’s dirty, clean it or change it. You could cut 350 pounds of carbon pollution a year.

Turn down the temperature on your water heater.

Many water heaters are set at 140°F when 120°F is sufficiently hot for most needs. Before leaving for vacation, turn the temperature way down to a lower set point. Otherwise you will be needlessly heating all those gallons—and paying for it, too.

Cut down on snail mail. 

Sign up for e-billing. Paper bills generate about two million tons of carbon pollution a year. Stop junk mail and free yourself from unwanted catalogs.

Stop throwing away food.

Forty percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted. And that means that all the energy, water, land, fertilizer, and other resources that go into growing, storing, transporting, and preparing that food is also wasted. Once food reaches landfills, it gradually converts to methane, a powerful climate pollutant. The most important thing to do is shop wisely—buy no more than what you expect to use. For extra credit, check out these other tips.

Compost.

Organic materials, such as food scraps and yard waste, can be broken down and added to soil to help plants grow instead of sent to the landfill where they release methane.

Go on a climate-friendly diet.

Some food produces more carbon in its production and transportation than others. For example, if cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitters, behind China and the United States. Livestock like cows, sheep, and goats emit methane. Climate-altering pollution also is generated from the energy needed to grow feed for those animals.

Beef production creates five times more greenhouse gases than pork or chicken and eleven times more than staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice. If Americans cut just a quarter pound of beef a week from their diets, it would be like taking 10 million cars off the road for one year.

In addition to cutting down on beef and other carbon-intensive foods like cheese, yogurt, and butter, eat locally produced food. You’ll keep food from traveling long distances by planes, trains, trucks, and ships.

Recycle.

We’ve made some strides in keeping the things we throw away out of landfills, but we still have a long way to go. Americans generated 258 million tons of municipal waste in 2014 and recycled and composted 89 million tons for a lethargic recycling rate of 34.6 percent. We can do a lot better.

Austria and Germany boast recycling rates of 63 percent and 62 percent, respectively. If the U.S. recycling level could reach a very attainable 75 percent, the reduction in carbon emissions would be the equivalent of taking 50 million cars off the road.

Making aluminum from old beverage containers, for example, uses 93 percent less energy than making aluminum from bauxite. Newsprint made from old newspapers requires 46 percent less energy than making it from wood.

Buy less bottled water.

Bottled water requires a lot of fossil fuels to manufacture and ship. Invest in a reusable water bottle you can refill when you’re thirsty. If you’re nervous about the quality of your local tap water, look for a bottle with a built-in filter.

When you have no choice but to buy a bottle of water, be sure to recycle it. (Only about 31 percent of plastic bottles were recycled in 2015.) Each recycled bottle is one fewer piece of plastic trash that could wind up in our oceans and harm marine life.

Use less water.

Water-treatment plants are energy intensive, so even using less cold water will have downstream carbon savings.

Want to do just one thing? Take shorter showers. Just trimming three minutes off your average shower time will save hundreds of pounds of carbon pollution a year.

You can permanently save energy and water by switching to WaterSense-labeled toilets, showerheads, and faucets. If just one out of every 100 American homes were retrofit with water-efficient fixtures, we’d prevent 80,000 tons of climate-altering pollution—the same as the annual emissions of nearly 15,000 cars. Some utilities offer rebates for WaterSense-labeled products.

Buy green power (and consider solar panels).

Offsetting your home energy consumption might eliminate a quarter to one-third of your carbon footprint.

Rooftop solar systems have become more affordable because of declining production costs, federal tax credits, and local and state rebates. Residents with rooftop solar panels might even be able to sell excess solar to the grid.

That’s a major reason why solar ranked as the number one source of new energy production in 2016, with a new solar installation completed every 84 seconds. About one million U.S. homes currently produce their own power from solar.

As an alternative to installing solar panels on your roof, look into community solar gardens. In such an arrangement, a utility company, nonprofit group, or business such as the Clean Energy Collective builds a giant solar-panel system on its own site, and consumers rent panels within that system to directly offset their electric bills. Currently there are almost 100 community solar programs across 25 states, with Minnesota, MassachusettsColoradoCalifornia, and Texas leading the way.

Another option is to choose a utility that offers renewable power. Green-e can guide you to renewable energy providers in your area.

Plant a tree.

One tree will absorb more than a ton of carbon dioxide during its lifetime. If every one of America’s 85 million gardening households planted just one young shade tree in their backyard or community, those trees would absorb more than two million tons of carbon each year.

Get an energy audit.

A home energy audit can identify opportunities to cut energy use, reduce your carbon output, and save money. Ask your utility if it offers a free audit, or hire a professional to come to your home and perform one. The EPA’s Home Energy Yardstick gives you a simple assessment of your home’s annual energy use compared with similar homes. 

Stop Congress from cutting funding to the Energy Star program

On the Move

Drive less.

You can keep one pound of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere for each mile of driving you eliminate. Walk, bike, use public transit, and telecommute when you can. Leaving your car at home just two days a week can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by an average of two tons per year.

Drive a fuel-efficient car—or better yet, an electric vehicle.

A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Electric cars produce zero tailpipe emissions. Even if the electric car is charged with fossil fuel‒generated power, it still will account for less than half the carbon pollution spewed by a conventional car over its lifetime.

A study by NRDC and the Electric Power Research Institute found that widespread electric vehicle use could cut carbon pollution by 550 million metric tons annually in 2050, equivalent to the emissions from 100 million passenger cars. It also would reduce other harmful pollution, such as ozone and particulate matter.

Tax credits are available. The EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide and Fueleconomy.gov’s Find-a-Car provide information on vehicles’ environmental and fuel performance. California’s Drive Clean site also offers data on clean cars.

Keep your tires properly inflated.

You’ll improve gas mileage, and for every gallon of gas saved, you’ll avoid emitting 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. Recommended tire pressures are usually printed on the driver’s door jamb or the glove compartment, or in the owner’s manual.

Also, when replacing your tires, look for those that have low rolling resistance. These tires improve fuel efficiency by generating less energy-wasting heat as they rotate and grip the road.

Remove unnecessary accessories from your car roof.

Roof racks and clamshell storage containers can reduce fuel efficiency by as much as 5 percent. 

Stop idling.

The average annual carbon pollution from five minutes of daily voluntary idling ranges from 220 to 440 pounds per year, depending on the size of the engine. So instead of hitting the drive-through, park the car and walk inside. And turn off the engine while at the curb during school pickups.

Service your vehicle regularly.

A poorly tuned engine can use up to 50 percent more fuel—and produce up to 50 percent more emissions—than one that is running properly.

Fly less often.

single round-trip flight from Los Angeles to New York, for example, creates a warming effect equivalent to two to three tons of carbon emissions per person—the same load the average car produces over six months. The high altitude at which planes release the majority of their emissions significantly increases their heat-trapping impact.

Before booking that next business trip, consider videoconferencing. If you’re not traveling too far, take the train. Or, if you must fly, consider purchasing carbon offsets to counterbalance the hefty carbon pollution associated with flying. Some airline websites offer carbon offsets, for example.

When you buy a carbon offset, you are investing in a project, such as a renewable energy project, that reduces carbon pollution. But not all carbon offset companies are alike. Do your homework to find the best supplier.

At Work

Use a laptop or mini-desktop.

According to a University of California, Irvine, study, office desktop computers are switched on 77 percent of the time but are sitting idle 61 percent of that time. A typical desktop consumes substantial amounts of electricity when on but not actively used—almost four times as much power as a typical laptop and 40 times as much as a tablet.

Turn off your computer when you step away from your desk, or have it set to power down after 30 minutes or less of inactivity.

Break the paper habit.

The average office generates about 350 pounds of wastepaper per employee every year.

You can e-mail invoices and contracts (which can be e-signed); edit and comment on drafts electronically; skip the handouts and view meeting materials on a monitor at the conference table instead.

Push your office to buy paper that is made with 100 percent postconsumer recycled content rather than produced with virgin materials, which generate twice as much greenhouse gas emissions.

BYO coffee mug.

One reusable mug, used twice a day, every day instead of disposable cups, can save 135 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per person per year.

Promote waste-cutting office policies.

Advocate for buying in bulk and for purchasing products made from recycled content that come in recycled packaging. Put collection bins around the office and encourage coworkers to recycle. Conduct regular waste audits to see how you’re doing and to provide motivation.

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