With climate change posing huge challenges for how we'll live both now and in the future, it's a good idea for everyone to take a closer look at their own carbon footprint. And one of the best places to take that closer look is in our very own homes.
Before we start, some may be wondering what is a "carbon footprint".
Simply put, it's the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are emitted into the atmosphere as a result of your actions.
If you would like to put a number on your current carbon footprint so you can track your progress reducing it, there are several useful calculators on the internet for doing so, like this one by the WWF.
Whether or not you want to get quantitative about it, here are 8 of the most impactful ways you can reduce your carbon footprint at home.
1. Conduct a Home Energy Audit
Do you know how much energy your home is using on a monthly basis?
If you're paying your utility bills, you probably do! More importantly, do you know how your home could be made more energy efficient? Since nearly all energy production is tied to some release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (renewables are the exception), becoming more energy efficient correlates to a lower carbon footprint.
That's the goal of a home energy audit. On the one hand, a home energy audit can reveal where your home has energy inefficiencies, such as inadequate insulation or air leaks. On the other hand, a home energy audit can tell you where your daily habits can adjust to use less energy overall. Since nearly all energy production and consumption is tied to some release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (renewables like solar and wind power are the exception), becoming more energy efficient correlates to a lower carbon footprint.
An energy audit is the logical first step to reducing your carbon footprint at home and should give you an actionable game plan for moving forward. The U.S. Department of Energy has a great resource for conducting your own home energy assessment.
2. Keep Outside . . . Outside
Since heating and cooling your home are two of your home's biggest energy uses, making sure your home is properly weatherproofed is one of the smartest ways to cut back on your carbon footprint.
A leaky or poorly insulated house or apartment is going to let more cold or hot air inside, and thus more energy to heat or cool it to keep it comfortable, depending on the season. Check that your walls and attic are properly insulated, there are no gaps around your exterior doors and windows letting outside air in, and that your windows are the newer, better-insulating dual- or triple-paned type.
If you don't trust yourself to do a good inspection, many heating and cooling professionals can recommend weatherproofing improvements to your home as part of a consultation about your home's HVAC systemand often this service is free.
3. Get Smart
Another way to improve your home's heating and cooling efficiency is installing a smart thermostat. While most thermostats have programmable settings to help with energy efficiency, smart thermostats take things to a whole new level.
For example, smart thermostats can "observe" your habits and optimize your home's climate accordingly, decreasing HVAC use as you walk out the door for the day and increasing HVAC use right before you return at your regular hour. Additionally, they can adjust temp-levels based on weather forecasts, getting out in front of hot or cold spells.
Best of all, smart thermostats can also be controlled remotely via app, so your A/C unit doesn't have to run full blast the entire time you're away on vacation, if you forgot to turn it down.
4. LED the Way
This next tip is an oldie but a goodie: Make sure home is using LED lightbulbs. Originally developed in the 1960s, LED lighting technology only made its way into widespread residential use in the 2000s. Even so, not all households are taking advantage of their energy efficiency.
LED lighting has numerous advantages over other types of lighting, including incandescent bulbs, fluorescents, metal halide, and sodium vapor lights. Specifically, LED lights use less energy to achieve the same brightness, waste less energy emitting heat, function better in cold weather, and last anywhere from 2x to 100x longer, so they need replacing less frequently while also requiring less energy to manufacture.
All told, replacing all the lights in your home with LEDs can account for a 60 to 90% energy reduction for your lighting needs.
5. Look to the Stars
Energy Star-rated appliances, that is.
We've already mentioned LED lighting and dual-paned windowswhere else could your home's energy efficiency see improvements?
After heating and cooling your home, heating water is likely your next most energy-intensive activity, followed by using larger appliances, such as your washing machine and dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator, and so on.
The U.S. Department of Energy and EPA created the Energy Star program to set energy-efficiency goals for manufacturers and help consumers find and compare the eco-friendlier appliances on the market. While replacing an old washing machine or refrigerator may be seem like a large cost upfront, sometimes the savings in energy costs over the long term will offset the high price tag. For example, a 20-year-old refrigerator could use 1,700 kWh of electricity every year, while an ENERGY STAR-rated model of the same size may only require 450 kWH. At 13.72 cents per kWh (the average rate in the U.S.), that's a savings of $171.60 per year, so a ENERGY STAR-rated model will pay for itself in energy savings in six to 12 years.
If you’re not sure what the cost of electricity is in your area, enter your ZIP Code at the top of the page to find out.
6. Eat Less Meat, More Local
Changing your diet is also a significant but overlooked way to reduce your carbon footprint. In short, the quickest way your grocery list can reduce your greenhouse emissions is by cutting back your meat consumption and eating more local food.
Meat, particularly beef, requires substantially more energy in the form of livestock feed to produce food that could otherwise be grown to feed humans rather than livestock. Beyond the feed, there are greenhouse gas emissions involved in the processing, packaging, and transporting of meat. Plus, livestock contribute major amounts of methane into the environment.
Transportation is the main reason eating local reduces your carbon footprint. Everything you eat involves some mileage getting it from farm to you. Why buy carrots that traveled across the country when you buy carrots that were grown just down the road? Consistently choosing locally grown or raised food products makes a huge difference over the long term.
7. Get Well-Versed in Recycling
Everyone knows recycling is better for the environment, but come recycling day, how confident are you about which products go in which bin? Consider taking Keep America Beautiful's #BeRecycled Pledge which helps you learn how to recycle to the best of your ability in your local community.
Recycling helps curb greenhouse emissions, and thus your carbon footprint, by reducing energy consumption overall. Recycling keeps items out of landfills and in the production loop, reducing the need for virgin materials. Manufacturing from recycled materials is often less energy-intensive than manufacturing from virgin materials, too.
8. Switch to Renewables
Remember: most of the tips above are based on the premise that the energy you use is coming from non-renewable sources, and thus there are greenhouse gas emissions tied to that energy production.
However, if you're able to equip your home with its own renewable energy source, say rooftop solar panels or even a small wind electric system, you can significantly reduce the carbon footprint associated with your home. One university study says solar panels can reduce a home's associated carbon footprint by as much as 80%.
If installing costly solar panels and other hardware is prohibitive because you’re a renter or some other reason, you can switch to a 100% renewable energy plan where your energy provider will purchase renewable energy credits (REC’s) on your behalf to off-set your energy usage with clean energy.
To see renewable options in your area, enter your ZIP Code at the top of the page.