how big is your footprint?

Last Sunday’s New York Times honed in on the dubious practice of Americans buying carbon offsets to brand themselves carbon-neutral. Andy Revkin, the paper’s global-warming reporter, quoted me saying, "There isn’t a single American household above the poverty line that couldn’t cut their CO2 at least 25 percent in six months through a straightforward series of fairly simple and terrifically cost-effective measures."

My claim has hit a nerve. Despite the absence of a link, already a dozen readers have tracked me down on the web and written to ask what measures I have in mind. This article is for them and anyone else who might be interested.

First, a confession. As often happens, assertion preceded analysis. But my claim didn’t come from thin air — I have experience in energy analysis and a feel for the numbers. With a bit of figuring, I made a list of 16 energy-saving (hence carbon-reducing) steps that together should do away with a bit more than one-quarter of a typical U.S. household’s carbon emissions.

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The top five:

  1. Shift activities and destinations to cut out 25% of non-commute driving (eliminates 6.3% of average household’s CO2),
  2. Replace incandescent and halogen bulbs with compact fluorescents (eliminates 4.5%).
  3. E-Z insulation upgrade (4.0%).
  4. Convert one round-trip commute per week to carpool or transit/bike/walk (2.2%).
  5. Turn down the thermostat 3ºF during the heating season (1.8%).

These measures alone should reduce a typical household’s carbon emissions by almost 19%. The other eleven measures get rid of 8%, for a total of almost 27%. These range from halving television (0.9%) and driving less fuel-intensively (1.4%) to upgrading showerheads (0.8%) and plugging battery chargers and other home electronics into vampire-load busting power strips (0.9%). (See spreadsheet for details.)

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Most of these measures are doable tomorrow, and all within six months. To be sure, many of them fall under the rubric of conservation (using less) rather than pure efficiency. But all promise "co-benefits" such as peace and quiet. All require some degree of mindfulness as well. That’s okay. If they didn’t — if all these steps were part of the cultural default — we wouldn’t have driven the climate to the point where we must now gear down and change.

Note that I considered only direct household energy use — gasoline, electricity, and space and water heating. I didn’t examine other areas within personal influence such as air travel, food consumption, and purchase of stuff with embodied energy from manufacture, shipping, and retailing. These are all important, but had to be excluded to keep the calculations straightforward and manageable.

Poverty households clearly lack room to cut back, as well as capital to become more efficient. They need targeted weatherization and efficiency programs. For the long haul, the U.S. needs policies that move our entire society to an energy-efficient platform without having to rely solely on individual initiative. These are covered by the efficiency gurus at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other groups.