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The earth is warming and the effects – droughts, cyclones, forest fires, to name a few – are becoming more frequent and more severe.
But consumers can do something about climate change – in a simple way that also saves money.
“There are many little things that add up,” says Theresa Eberhardt, project manager at the Environmental Defense Fund, whose work focuses on green supply chains.
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Last year was the hottest year on world records, according to NASA. The seven warmest years have all occurred since 2014, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
This is largely due to heat-storing greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that people (at the corporate and household level) are pumping into the atmosphere. This can be done, for example, by burning gasoline while driving a car, or burning oil or natural gas to heat a house and generate electricity.
According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the USA has the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita of any country.
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"The next generation and generations really need to reduce our emissions," said Gregory Keoleian, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. "We are in a climate crisis. We have a small window of opportunity to act."
A CO2 calculator can help consumers identify the biggest contributors to their “carbon footprint”.
$ 1,560 per year
The Center for Sustainable Systems analyzed two medium-sized single-family homes – a typical home and another similar style that is energy efficient – in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The energy-efficient home reduced CO2 emissions by more than 60% – while saving $ 38,000 in electricity and $ 40,000 in natural gas costs over the 50-year life cycle of the home. That equates to a total annual savings of $ 1,560.
The basic problem we often have is that our default (selection) is not the best and not necessarily the cheapest. It's just the default.
senior scientist in nature conservation
The numbers vary for households depending on factors such as regional electricity and gas costs. (For example, they don't include separate measures to reduce CO2 and save money on food and transportation, Keoleian said.)
And while households are only responsible for 20% of annual emissions, consumers who lead greener lifestyles can also have a positive impact on corporate and political responses, according to experts.
Here are eight easy ways individuals can go green and replenish their wallets.
1. Use LED light bulbs
LED lightbulbs use at least 75% less energy than conventional lightbulbs and last 25 times longer, according to the US Department of Energy.
According to the Consumer Federation of America, households can save $ 75 a year in energy bills by replacing just five of their most commonly used lightbulbs with Energy Star-certified LEDs.
(LED stands for "light emitting diode".)
At today's electricity prices, widespread use could save more than $ 30 billion cumulatively by 2027, the Department of Energy said.
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Replacing a lightbulb immediately – instead of waiting for a lightbulb to burn out – brings the greatest financial and environmental benefit, according to Keoleian.
Replacing all the lightbulbs in a household would take around 5.3 million to 6.4 million cars off the road, according to an estimate by Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
"The basic problem we often have is that our standard selection (selection) is not the best, and not necessarily the cheapest," said Hayhoe. "It's just the default."
(As a practical tip: choose LEDs between 2700 and 3000 Kelvin to match the soft, yellow-white light of old lightbulbs; 4000K to 6500K lightbulbs have a cooler or bluish light, according to the Consumer Federation.)
2. Disconnect devices
The energy consumed by electronic devices on standby makes up 5 to 10% of household energy consumption – an average of an additional $ 100 per year, according to the Center for Sustainable Systems.
The Center recommends disconnecting devices from the mains when not in use or connecting them to a power strip and switching the power strip off.
3. Change the thermostat
Households can reduce their heating and cooling bills by resetting their thermostats when they are asleep or away from home. A programmable thermostat does this automatically according to a preset schedule.
Here's the concept: set the temperature lower in colder weather and higher in warmer weather, which uses less energy.
This may be easier now as Americans who worked from home during the Covid pandemic are more likely to go to the office.
According to the Department of Energy, households can save up to 10% per year by turning the thermostat 7 ° F to 10 ° F from its normal setting eight hours a day.
According to Mel Hall-Crawford, director of energy programs for the Consumer Federation of America, the savings can amount to about $ 90 a year.
4. Use cold water
Operating a dishwasher and washing machine with cold instead of hot or warm water could save energy costs, according to environmental experts.
"Heating water is one of the most expensive things we do," said John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director of Greenpeace USA.
For example, washing clothes in cold water once a week can reduce a household's emissions by over 70 pounds annually, according to the Center for Sustainable Systems.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, this corresponds to the emissions that an average car drives 80 miles.
According to experts, households can also use a clothes horse instead of a dryer. According to an estimate by the Sustainability Consortium, drying is responsible for 71% of the electricity required to wash and dry a load of clothes.
Individuals can also make sure a dishwasher is full before turning it on and even set a timer in the shower to avoid overuse of hot water, experts said.
5. Cut down on plastic
Replacing single-use plastic with reusable alternatives is easier than ever for households, said Eberhardt of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Consumers can replace Ziploc bags with silicone bags; Saran wrap with beeswax wrap; Plastic water bottles with reusable bottles or a water filter; and plastic straws for portable, reusable ones, experts said.
(The same goes for single-use items that are not made of plastic, such as paper towels – which are wrapped in plastic and could be replaced with tea towels or sponges.)
"You really lower your weekly food costs and it's better for the planet," said Eberhardt.
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According to Hocevar, more than 95% of plastic packaging is made from fossil fuels.
And most of it isn't recyclable – an often misunderstood fact about the plastic Americans throwing in blue bins, he said. Recyclable plastic is often only recycled once.
It is then incinerated or landfilled, both of which help release gases that warm the planet, he said.
Buying non-perishable items in bulk is also generally cheaper and saves on plastic packaging, added Hocevar.
6. Optimize your diet
The foods Americans eat can vary widely in terms of their carbon footprint.
In general, eating a more plant-based diet and cutting down on red meat consumption can be cheaper, greener, and healthier – which could help lower long-term medical bills, experts said.
"The diet is very personal and cultural," Keoleian said. "But people should know that they can save money and really reduce their carbon emissions."
For example, according to some sources, beef has about seven times the emissions of fish (farm breeding) and ten times those of chicken. The difference is even clearer when compared to plant-based foods and proteins – beef, for example, has a CO2 footprint that is 230 times higher than that of nuts or root vegetables.
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These emissions can come from sources such as food production, transportation and packaging. For example, cows produce a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas that is much stronger than carbon.
Families could, for example, consider a "meatless Monday" to reduce their consumption of red meat, Eberhardt said.
According to a Gallup poll from early 2020, around one in four Americans said they had eaten less meat (beef, pork, or chicken) in the past year. The environment was the second reason behind health.
Trade groups representing farmers and beef producers – the American Association of Meat Processors, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen & # 39; s Beef Association, and the North American Meat Institute – have failed to respond to CNBC's requests for comments on this article.
Jerry Bohn, a Kansas rancher and president of the National Cattlemen & # 39; s Beef Association, recently pushed the thought of reducing red meat consumption for Americans.
"US farmers and ranchers are the best in the world when it comes to producing safe, healthy, and sustainable high quality beef for American families with the smallest possible footprint, and we are determined to continue on this journey of improvement . ”He said in April.
Families should also try to reduce the amount of food thrown away, Eberhardt said.
About 30 to 40% of the food produced in the US is not consumed, with most of that waste on the consumer side – which then produces greenhouse gases when it breaks down, Eberhardt said. Your family will create a basic meal plan at the beginning of each week to avoid buying excess groceries.
7. Buy efficient equipment
Consumers should replace old home appliances with energy efficient options to reduce their electricity bills.
This can be anything from refrigerators to dishwashers, microwaves, and air conditioners. (Efficient machines have an Energy Star label.)
This can be a longer-term decision for consumers – but it doesn't have to be.
"A lot of people think that they want to extend the life (of the old device) to save money," Keoleian said. "You're damaging your wallet because they're so inefficient."
According to the Center for Sustainable Systems, refrigerators are among the largest consumers of energy from household appliances. (In 2015, the average household emissions from refrigeration were approximately 820 miles.)
But changing other devices can also make a big difference. If all tumble dryers sold in the US were Energy Star certified, Americans could save more than $ 1.5 billion in operating costs annually and avoid emissions similar to around 2 million vehicles, according to Energy Star.
8. Change the way you get around
Consumers can, for example, also replace older cars with electric vehicles – which can be particularly useful for those who drive closer to home and are not "afraid of range" when charging.
FuelEconomy.gov can help consumers identify and compare efficient vehicles.
There are other, potentially simpler, steps consumers can take as well. Around a fifth of trips by car are associated with shopping, for example – but the combination of errands (“trip-chaining”) can help avoid unnecessary trips, according to the Center for Sustainable Systems.
Correct tire pressure can also play a role. Center says fuel efficiency drops 0.2% for every 1 pound-per-square-inch reduction.
Carpooling or teleworking once a week to reduce driving (and the associated costs) can also help.