Climate change is no joke. More than 40,000 daily heat records have been broken around the country this year, and a persistent drought means that more than half of all U.S. counties have been declared drought disaster areas. A recent NASA study published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that these extreme weather events are indeed tied to climate change.<p> While sustainable solutions to the planet's climate problems will likely have to come from the supply side (by forcing utilities to ditch coal and gas and by implementing policies that promote sustainability on a government scale), that doesn't mean individuals can't have an impact. Here are 10 things you can do to help curb global warming.
Raising cattle uses a lot of land (which is then no longer covered in trees to absorb carbon), a lot of food and a lot of fertilizer. What's more, cow manure is the fastest-growing source of methane. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, found that for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef produced, 27 kilograms (59 pounds) of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere. That's equivalent to driving an SUV 37 miles.
Heating and cooling makes up 56 percent of your home's energy use, and programming your thermostat can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25,500 pounds over the thermostat's life cycle, according to the U.S. Energy Star program. And don't worry that if you turn off the air conditioning while you're out of the house that your system will have to work harder to "catch up." According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), that's a myth.
Bonus points if you plant one near your home, where the tree will not only absorb carbon but reduce your air conditioning use by helping to cool your house. Air temperatures directly under trees can be as much as 25 degrees cooler than air temperature above nearby blacktop, according to the U.S. DOE.
We've all heard it, but few of us do it. According to the 2009 U.S. American Community Survey (conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau), three in four workers in America drive to work by themselves. An additional 10 percent carpool; only 5 percent take public transportation. If each of those 105 million solo drivers carpooled with each other one day a week, they'd cut our country's CO2 emissions by 12 million pounds a year.
Tinkerers and chemistry majors can convert a diesel engine to run on biodiesel made from used cooking oil (and make their exhaust pipes smell like french fries in the process). Burning the fuel still emits pollutants, but making your own fuel from waste eliminates the carbon emissions from extracting and processing petroleum, which works out to about 4-6 pounds of carbon per gallon of gas.
Just do it. An individual incandescent bulb uses almost no power (costing about 4/10ths of a penny to run for one hour), but collectively, turning off unneeded lights would save 20 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. A study found that just putting a "please turn out the lights" sign near a light switch in a public restroom made the odds eight times higher that the lights would actually be turned off.
It seems strange, but making all that ice has an energy cost, according to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory climate scientist Philip Cameron-Smith. An icemaker in a home fridge increases energy consumption by up to 20 percent, and while a nice cool drink on a hot day feels great, any ice left in the bottom of your cup after you're done drinking is wasted energy.
Making a glass bottle from new materials requires 1.4 times more energy than making a can. Making a glass bottle from recycled glass saves energy, but recycling a can saves even more — it's 95 percent more efficient to recycle a can than to make a new one. And speaking of recycling, do it.
Reducing the number of miles your vegetables travel to get to your plate sounds like a good idea — think of all those emissions from trucking them halfway across the country. But food miles aren't everything. A famously cited study found that, for Swedes, tomatoes from Spain had a smaller carbon footprint, because Swedish tomatoes were grown in greenhouses heated by fossil fuels. Growing green beans in Kenya produces less carbon than growing them in Europe. But if you're lucky enough to have a good farmer's market nearby (or even better, if you are able to grow some of your own veggies), they're probably more efficient, energy-wise, than the stuff flown in from the other side of the world.
With rare exceptions (that 20-year-old fridge should be replaced with a new, energy-efficient model rather than kept limping inefficiently along), you can reap huge green points by making your devices last longer. In 2005, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans threw 1.8 million tons of old electronics into landfills. It's not just a "green" imperative: the circuit boards being tossed contain precious resources. A recent report found that "informal recyclers" (people in developing nations who manually dismantle and recycle electronic waste) can reap 40 to 50 times more gold from old electronics than miners can from gold ore.