Dear Umbra,

This year my family is not in the position to make any major CO2-reducing changes. We will not be purchasing a new car, a smaller house, or more efficient appliances. And honestly, with two small children living in a suburb, public transportation is not a realistic option. Still, we’d like to reduce our carbon footprint and help the environment. Would you be able to point out other meaningful, smaller changes we could make? Thanks for your guidance.

Tara H.
Indianapolis, Ind.

Dearest Tara,

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Don’t abandon hope for significant greenhouse-gas reductions. If your life is anything approaching the typical American’s, there are at least two major CO2-reducing changes still within your grasp. You can’t drive less, buy a better car, or make any major home investments, but you can probably eat less meat and avoid the airport. Conventional meats and air travel are two personal climate impact behemoths.

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Take a bite out of clime.

Four people flying round trip from Indianapolis to Cancún would emit 9,856 pounds of CO2 (by comparison, a typical family car emits about 12,000 pounds of CO2 in a year. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that if all Americans switched from their current diets to going meat-free one day a week, it would be equivalent to removing 8 million American cars from the roads. Another way to look at the meat delete option is through the calculations offered by the Pacific Institute, which estimates that a skimpy 40-gram pile of hamburger (about 1.5 ounces worth) causes 790 to 1,500 grams of CO2 emissions. If you calculate how many grams of burgers your family usually eats and add it all up, you can get an idea of your yearly beef-induced emissions; you can also estimate your travel emissions by using any number of online calculators.

May I presume, however, that budget is a limiting factor for you? Eating lower on the food chain — and, of course, eschewing the hella-expensive cost of an airline ticket — are quite kind to the pocketbook, unlike the upfront costs of the new auto and home improvements you mention above. In fact, if you don’t currently fly due to economics, pat yourself on the back — your footprint is already lower than many Americans’. A big sticking point on following this prescription, though, is that flying and meat-eating (among other high-carbon callings) are often undertaken for pleasure. To ease any resistance you may have to foregoing things you enjoy, remember: In situations where habit change is hard, we start with Less, not None.

I want to once again mention Mark Bittman’s New York Times article about eating less meat (I’m going through a Mark Bittman phase). Unlike yours truly, Bittman can avoid the Why and go directly to the How, and (also unlike yours truly) he is a cooking expert. His suggestions include reducing portion size (the USDA, for one, recommends only about five or six ounces of meat each day); he also advises using other protein sources, eating less protein overall, ordering differently at restaurants, and serving less-meaty dishes that are so delicious they’re a pleasure unto themselves.

As to flying — if indeed you or yours partake in such an activity — there is a straightforward way to reduce, and a slightly complicated way too (or probably several, but for now I’m just mentioning one). If your family typically flies for one vacation and two visits to see the extended family, cut out one of these trips or substitute a less carbonaceous (bus! train! llama!) travel method. I don’t have much experience with business travel, but I do know that video conferencing and trip consolidation are also useful when it comes to reducing business miles flown. If you cannot trim the number of annual plane trips, whether for business or for family, see if you can curtail the emissions on your flights through clever flight choices. Direct flights are better than indirect flights, because take-off and landing burn the most fuel. A strong aviation emissions calculator, such as Atmosfair, will help you compare various routes and emissions costs as you shop for tickets.

As you see, your family need not feel environmentally helpless or stumped. These two tweaks alone could make a great difference — unless you are already land-bound vegetarians. In which case, write back and we’ll talk about different changes.