Your carbon footprint can be sort of a difficult thing to visualize -- you can't really see your carbon emissions trailing up into the atmosphere as you go about your life. You surely know that burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gas emissions, and that it's not just your car that contributes to your carbon footprint -- the electricity you use in your home, your airplane travel, even the food you eat has a significant impact on the number that goes with your particular footprint. And, while every person's footprint is a bit different, one thing is true for everyone: You can reduce your carbon footprint by half (or more!) with these three tips.
First, though, we should establish a few baselines. The average American's yearly carbon footprint is just about 20 tons, according to the United Nations; the global average is just a shade under 4 tons each year. This is not something we can be proud of for being first -- America is way, way out in front here, and that's a huge problem. If we're going to make any progress in the fight against the climate crisis, that means it's time for big action, so let's get to it. Here's how to lose 10 tons in a year.
Vegetarian can mean more than just salad. Photo credit: Getty Images / Medioimages/Photodisc
Become a Weekday Vegetarian: Lose .7 tons
Your diet has a huge impact on the climate. A vegetarian diet is often cited as a greener way to eat (and it is, in a lot of ways) but it's a very polarizing topic for lots of people, and it's no good to stand around shouting at folks who just won't give up meat. Happily, we've found a happy medium: Be a weekday vegetarian. It's simple, easy to remember, much cheaper than buying all meat, all the time, and still has a significant impact. According to a study from the University of Chicago [PDF], an all-vegetarian (lacto-ovo -- dairy and eggs allowed) diet will reduce your carbon footprint by about a ton; cut that back to five out of seven days -- about 70 percent -- and you've got 1400 pounds, or 0.7 tons.
You can still eat a little meat -- please, choose a climate-friendly version when you do -- when the weekends roll around; during the week, it's easy to find tons of vegetarian recipes you can feast on, knowing your on your way to losing 10 tons of carbon.
Buy Green Power: Lose 4 Tons
Eating green is just a small slice of the pie, so to speak. The average American household is responsible for nearly 9 tons of carbon emissions per year, according to the Department of Energy. Most of that comes from our most prominent source of electricity in this country: Coal, which we use for about 48 percent of our electricity nationally. Since there are a little more than two people per household, on average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, we can cut the 9 ton average about in half, down to 4 tons per person per year.
So, switching from the "dirty power" that your utility provides (it really depends on location and individual utility for this one -- Maryland's average emissions are a bit higher, actually, since they use more coal, for example) to renewables can save you a bundle of carbon. Each utility does it differently, so you'll have to contact whichever company or organization makes sure there's light when you flip on the switch, but more and more are offering programs that allow you to help them invest in renewable energy, and cut way back on your carbon footprint in the process. One caveat: You will pay a bit of a premium for green power; in most cases it's about one cent per kilowatt-hour, maybe $180 or $200 per year, but you can easily save that by buying less meat as part of your weekday vegetarian diet, and you can save even more cash with the last of the three tips.
Cut Three Flights per Year: Lose 5 Tons Okay, so we're halfway home, and to a huge source for our individual and collective carbon footprints: Airplane travel. It's sort of the elephant in the room when it comes to talking about this stuff, since modern airplane travel can be marvelously convenient -- it's the only way to get from one end of the country to the other, say, in less than a day. Until a proper high-speed rail infrastructure connects the corners of our country, airplane travel will just be a reality for some of us, some of the time. That's okay; we're just saying you could do less of it. While that sounds restrictive and maybe even a little backwards, it's not as hard as you might think. Frequent business travelers: How many silly trips do you make each year that you don't have to? I'll bet at least one. How often do you zoom away and return home within three or four days? Seems kinda quick, no? By using tools like teleconferencing, and combining business with a little pleasure, you'll be surprised at how easy it is to not fly so much. Here's the crux of this one: Flying generates humongous carbon emissions. One flight from New York to Los Angeles (y'know, five hours or so, a movie, maybe catching up on your reading) averages nearly two tons, all by itself. Exact numbers are tricky to pin down -- it really depends on what sort of plane you're flying, exactly how full it is, a little thing called radiative forcing -- but it's a safe bet to say that cutting out three round-trips will save you 5 tons (and probably a little more). Check out Mike's great three-part series on greener flying over on TreeHugger for a very thorough treatment of the subject, including some killer alternatives for winged travel. So there you have it: Three steps, 10 tons of carbon emissions saved. It's not quite as easy as installing a programmable thermostat, or another easy lifestyle change you can make in a day, but it has a heck of a lot more impact. If you're serious about helping curb runaway climate change, these tips are the place to start. Seriously.