Cutting Carbon Emissions, One Household at a Time

You've heard the drill: Drive a fuel-efficient car, insulate your attic, and install energy-saving light bulbs. But what can the average person really do to combat global warming? Quite a bit, according to a new study. By taking a few well-known, readily available measures, researchers argue, Americans could cut their emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by as much as 7% over the next decade.

In the study, researchers quantified the effect of adhering to 17 well-known energy-saving tips, from upgrading insulation in existing homes to installing low-flow showerheads in bathrooms. Their list even includes regularly changing furnace filters and line-drying clothing when possible. Until now, no study has calculated the total amount of carbon emissions that would be slashed via these measures, the likelihood that people will undertake them, and how many households have already implemented each item, says human ecologist Edward Vine of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, who was not involved in the research.

A team led by human ecologist Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University in East Lansing restricted their analysis to actions that can be undertaken with on-the-shelf technology at either no cost or with very positive payback for any upfront costs, and that don't involve changes in lifestyle. These include the aforementioned strategies, as well as sticking to the posted speed limit at all times, carpooling to work, and eschewing driving altogether when convenient. As the researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, even figuring widespread resistance to some of the advice--such as obeying speed limits and carpooling--these ordinary measures, if universally adopted, could trim U.S. carbon emissions by over 100 million metric tons--more than 7%--within a decade. Given that the United States contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than any other country except China, even this much change would be significant.

The study is the first time anyone has tried to quantify the carbon-emissions savings from households adopting common energy-saving strategies, Vine says: "We need more of this kind of research." And despite public concern about climate change, he says, "people still need to be educated" about the actions they can take and the carbon benefits of taking them.