Spring 2012

Smarter Ways to Keep the Planet Cool | Catalyst Spring 2012

A new book from UCS challenges you to lower your carbon emissions by 20 percent this year—and shows you the most effective strategies for getting it done.


by Seth Shulman

There’s no shortage of advice about lowering your carbon footprint—recommendations range from starting a worm farm in your basement to drinking locally brewed beer. Given the enormity of the problem of global warming, recommendations like these make it easy to wonder: can my individual actions really make a difference?

The answer is yes.

Over the past two years, the Union of Concerned Scientists conducted in-depth research to determine which individual actions are most effective for averting the worst effects of global warming. The results are presented in our new book Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, which will be published by Island Press in May. Here is a sneak preview of what we uncovered.

The Challenge: 20 Percent Lower Emissions

Our research painstakingly tracked both the direct and indirect emissions resulting from every dollar spent by U.S. consumers, analyzing the climate impact of our decisions on hundreds of topics as varied as home insulation and diet. We found that the average American is responsible for emitting a whopping 21 tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. That’s more than an average car would emit driving around the world at the equator. (The pie chart shows the breakdown of these emissions by activity.) On a per capita basis, Americans emit four times more carbon dioxide than the global average, and twice as much as most Europeans (even though their standard of living is similar to ours).

In other words, there’s no question Americans can use energy more efficiently. And making smart decisions about what to have for dinner, where to shop, and how to get to work can collectively make a real difference in saving energy and helping forestall the worst consequences of global warming. Whether you live in the Midwest, Deep South, or on one of the coasts, Cooler Smarter offers simple, straightforward steps to cut your emissions by 20 percent (equivalent to about four tons of carbon dioxide on average) in the coming year. Because no two people are the same, we have developed a menu of options designed to satisfy everyone’s carbon-cutting appetite. Many of the choices save you money, others are great long-term investments, and some even improve your health. And they are easier to implement than you might think.

Tame Home Energy Hogs

As you can see in the pie chart, your largest contribution to climate change is most likely parked in your driveway. Driving accounts for more than one-quarter of the average American’s total carbon emissions, with the average U.S. car—logging 12,000 miles per year and getting roughly 20 miles per gallon—responsible for more than six tons of carbon dioxide annually. For many of us, switching to a more fuel-efficient car could reduce our emissions by four tons or more in one fell swoop—and nearly pay for itself in gas savings alone.

20 Days, 20 Ways, 20% Less Carbon

In less than a month, our new Web feature will help cut your global warming emissions.

UCS is bringing our Cooler Smarter research to life with an interactive online tool that will help you identify the most effective ways to reduce your global warming emissions. Simply answer some questions about your household activities and we’ll show you the changes you can make to have the maximum possible impact—and see what a difference your individual actions can have when they are widely adopted. You can also receive helpful emails to guide your efforts.

Reducing energy use inside your home also offers opportunities for big savings. For instance, if every household added just a few rolls of inexpensive insulation to the attic, the nation could save more than $1.8 billion in annual energy costs; we would also keep more than 12 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year—the equivalent of taking some 2 million cars off the road. Switching from incandescent to compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) would reduce lighting-related electricity costs from $190 (the national average) to just $48; changing to light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs would drop the total to $22, allowing you to recoup the purchase cost in just a couple years.

Sweat the Right Stuff

You may have already implemented some of these kinds of changes in your lifestyle. But, no matter what your circumstances, some of our team’s findings recommendations are likely to surprise you. For instance, did you know that leaving a laser printer on all day could waste as much as $130 a year in electricity costs? That washing your clothes in hot water creates five times as much emissions as a cold-water wash? Or that playing a DVD on a gaming console (like a Sony Playstation) can use upwards of 20 times the electricity used by a standard DVD player?

Cooler Smarter helps you focus on steps that matter by busting several “eco-myths.” Buying locally grown food, for instance, is often touted as a way to fight global warming, but transportation from the farm to the marketplace makes up only a tiny fraction—some 4 percent on average—of the emissions related to food production. Even if local food eliminated all transportation emissions, long-distance food produced on a farm that reduces its emissions by just 5 percent might actually contribute less to global warming. Of course, we still advocate buying local food—it is a great way to support local farmers and get fresh fruits and vegetables—but there are more-effective ways to reduce global warming emissions through dietary changes, as our book explains (see the chart below). Another myth holds that conservation is the best way to save energy but it turns out that locking in efficiency is often more effective. Take lighting, for example: you would have to turn off incandescent lights entirely for three of every four days to achieve savings comparable to CFLs.

Meeting the Climate Challenge

Be the Biggest (Emissions) Loser on Your Block

Some friendly competition might make it easier for you to reach—or exceed—your climate goals.

A Boston-area cable television show clearly demonstrates how much each of us can do to help combat global warming at home. Building on the idea of a popular reality-TV show in which contestants compete to lose weight, Energy Smackdown challenged three local teams (each comprising about 100 households) to see which could achieve the biggest reductions in carbon emissions.

After receiving an energy audit to determine their baseline energy use, households undertook many of the kinds of the energy-saving tips outlined in our book Cooler Smarter, and had their efforts filmed for the show over the course of a year. The results were dramatic: the participants reduced their carbon emissions by an average of 20 percent overall, and the program’s winning household cut its emissions by 54 percent. One enterprising household even managed to lower its electricity use by a whopping 73 percent.

If all Americans met the 20 percent challenge laid out in Cooler Smarter, we would keep well over a billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of closing some 200 average-sized coal-fired power plants..

Politicians in Washington have not done nearly enough to address climate change, and until they have the courage to do so, any success in reducing carbon emissions will have to start with us. But it is also true that, as individuals, we cannot stabilize Earth’s climate on our own. That’s why UCS and our supporters need to continue to call on elected officials and corporate leaders to create policies that will secure the large-scale emissions reductions required.

The burning of coal, oil, and natural gas around the world is not likely to end right away, but an international transformation has begun. How fast we can bend the curve toward a low-carbon future depends on you. Cooler Smarter gives you the tools not only to curb your own emissions but also to inspire your friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers to do the same. Working from the bottom up and the top down, we can ensure a healthier planet for our children and grandchildren.

Seth Shulman is senior staff writer at UCS and co-author of Cooler Smarter.


Get ready to kick-start your lower-carbon lifestyle by pre-ordering one or more copies of Cooler Smarter.