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Reducing Your Home's Carbon Footprint
How big is your home's carbon footprint? It's a question many homeowners are asking these days, as evidence continues to mount that humans are changing the earth's climate.
A carbon footprint is the measure of how much carbon dioxide is being emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, by a country, an industry, a home or even a person. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is responsible for an overall warming of the earth's temperature, and hardly a week goes by without news reports chronicling the issue.
The problem is that some of the coverage tends to make people confused and cynical. For instance, Al Gore gets credit for drawing public attention to climate change. But media reports this spring of the high energy consumption at his large Tennessee home became fodder for late-night comics and liberal-bashing bloggers.
Gore's explanation that he offsets consumption by investing in renewable energy projects - in other words, by purchasing what are commonly referred to as carbon credits - might give the impression that the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is with a checkbook, rather than a caulking gun. But that would be "An Inconvenient Goof."
Yes, carbon credits or offsets are one way to reduce your home's carbon footprint, and we'll talk about that later. But for most homeowners, the real benefits come from actions that will not only cut carbon dioxide emissions, but in many cases save you money and make your home more comfortable.
Cutting Carbon Output
First off, you'll want to measure your home's current carbon footprint. We'll point you to worksheets and carbon calculators on the Internet that can help you set priorities and estimate the value of each measure. This is an important step because, on average, you can cut way more carbon by setting your thermostat down two degrees in winter and up two degrees in summer than by, say, running your dishwasher only with a full load. Both are good for your wallet and the environment, but the thermostat setback takes a bigger carbon bite for the buck.
The basis for all this attention over carbon is the Kyoto Protocol, the controversial amendment to an international United Nations treaty on climate change negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. It set targets for countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by certain percentage points below 1990 levels. Imbedded in those targets is a goal for households: Cut carbon output by 1,500 pounds per person.
To get to that number, advocates make various assumptions about how much carbon dioxide is given off per function and per energy type. These are rough averages, of course, and different websites and calculators use different assumptions.
Here's an example: On the Carbonfund.org website, the calculator relies on U.S. Department of Energy averages. It pegs household emissions of carbon dioxide from electricity generation at 1.34 pounds per kilowatt hour. It makes that assumption by calculating retail electric sales, breaking out of the residential sector and using census data to come up with average power use per person - in this case, 4,401 kilowatt hours (kwh) per year.
These sorts of calculations underpin actions homeowners can take to cut carbon output. For instance, high on the list of most carbon-cutting worksheets is to replace frequently used incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents lamps (CFLs). For each incandescent you change out for a CFL, you will prevent the emission of 100 or more pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (The exact amount will depend on the bulb's wattage, how long it's lit and how much coal, oil or natural gas is used to generate electricity where you live.)
But here's the big picture: If every household in the country replaced three incandescent bulbs with CFLs, it could keep a trillion pounds of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, according to an estimate by StopGlobalWarming.org.
Changing light bulbs is one of the areas of commitment for homeowners willing to sign up for the Governor's Carbon Challenge, a statute enacted in the state of Maine in 2003 as part of a wider environmental agreement among New England governors and premiers of eastern Canadian provinces. The goal is to get homeowners to trim 1,500 pounds from their carbon footprints by 2010. Here are some examples of how Maine calculates carbon-cutting activities:
You'll cut 600 pounds of carbon dioxide from your home's footprint by lowering the temperature on your electric water heater by 10 degrees
You'll cut 850 pounds by recycling 25 percent of household waste
You'll cut 500 pounds by replacing your older washer with an Energy Star model
Cut 260 pounds by turning down the thermostat one degree in a gas-heated home
Cut 327 pounds by washing all laundry in cold water.
By the way, these actions are cost-effective carbon cutters no matter where you live.
Renewable Energy Sources
Other suggestions come from groups that have highlighted effective ways to cut energy use at home but haven't quantified the carbon savings. Here are a few from the Cool It! Campaign in the San Francisco area, which is being promoted by the environmental education group Acterra, the Sierra Club and 3 Phases Energy Services, a renewable power provider:
Enable the "sleep" mode on your computer so it draws less power when not in use
Use power strips to switch off big-screen televisions and home theater equipment when you're not watching to eliminate the "standby" power consumption
Replace your standard thermostat with a programmable model; the timer feature makes it easy to automatically reduce heating and cooling bills while still being comfortable when you wake up in the morning or come home from work.
More ideas are available at the Cool It! Campaign's website (see sidebar).
Of course, there are also plenty of transportation-related actions you can take, centered on how you drive and maintain your car. In general, owning the most fuel-efficient vehicle that works for you, keeping the engine tuned and the tires properly inflated, and avoiding unnecessary driving all will help keep carbon out of the atmosphere.
Some faith communities are trying to get their members to cut carbon as a reflection of their concerns for the earth. A worksheet developed by the Maine Council of Churches includes a checklist for a range of actions homeowners can take involving appliances, heating and cooling, recycling, transportation, yard care and food consumption. Wrapping an electric water heater in an extra layer of insulation, for instance, is worth 600 pounds. A similar worksheet is available from Georgia Interfaith Power & Light as part of its Cool Our Planet Pledge Drive. (See sidebar for details on worksheets and websites.)
One action almost all of these worksheets suggest is to purchase electricity from renewable energy sources, if the option is available in your area. Chances are, purchasing renewable energy will be the biggest single action you can take to reduce your home's carbon footprint, especially if much of your home's power comes from burning coal, oil or natural gas.
Buying Carbon Credits
It's possible that your state or utility doesn't offer a green power option. Then what? An alternative approach is to buy carbon credits or offsets such as renewable energy certificates, which support wind, hydro and solar projects in other states. If you have trouble getting information from your local utility, log on to the Green-e website at http://www.green-e.org . Green-e is a leading independent certification program for renewable energy. The site lists green power options available in such states as New York, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Colorado, among others, as well as renewable energy certificate (REC) programs available to homeowners everywhere.
One example is the BeGreen carbon offset options offered by Austin, Texas-based Green Mountain Energy. Customers so far have purchased certificates that helped develop 12 renewable energy projects, including a 7,200-kilowatt wind farm in Ohio and solar collectors on a school in Dallas.
Because plants and trees remove and store carbon, some offsets include forestation projects. The BeGreen program has helped replant trees in a California national forest after a wildfire, for instance.
For some people, buying credits that will help build a power plant or plant trees in another state isn't as satisfying as knowing their energy dollars are helping to keep turbines spinning at a local hydroelectric dam. That's why it makes sense to investigate any carbon offsets you may be considering. If you're writing a check to plant trees 3,000 miles from your home, can you really be confident that the work will be done, and the seedlings will be watered and maintained? After all, a tree that dies a year after it's planted isn't removing any carbon from the atmosphere.
Here's something important to remember. Carbon offsets have become a big business. You can even buy them for airline travel, to offset the carbon you generate by flying. That's what California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing. He's supporting a forest conservation project in Humboldt County in northern California meant to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as a way to offset emissions from his frequent jet travel.
Taking Practical Actions
Politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Gore may have other motivations for buying carbon offsets. But for the average homeowner, these programs raise a question. Would your money be better spent taking practical actions in your home, like insulating the attic or upgrading your home's heating system?
Questions like that make the controversy over carbon offsets very polarizing. And that probably makes it harder to convince homeowners of the value of cutting carbon emissions - it's hard to calculate anyway, and now it's getting tied up in value judgments. After you factor in the politics of global climate change, you might wonder whether what you do at home really matters.
But then, isn't calculating your carbon footprint a revealing way to make a connection between you, your home and the world?
For example, earlier this year Australia announced plans to phase out virtually all incandescent light bulbs in the country by 2010. In the United States, Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is trying to sell 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs by next year. It sounds like a new take on an old joke: How many light bulbs does it take to change the world?
On its carbon calculator, StopGlobalWarming.org suggests replacing three incandescent bulbs in your home with compact fluorescents. That would cut 300 pounds of carbon and save $60 a year, on average.
But why stop at three? The price of compact fluorescents is way down; they usually cost only about two or three bucks apiece, come in several sizes and light outputs, and use a quarter the electricity of a standard bulb. Why not replace all your home's frequently used bulbs? Just by changing lightbulbs, most homeowners could meet the minimum goals of the Kyoto Protocol. It's probably the easiest way to trim your home's carbon footprint by 1,500 pounds. And in the long run you'll be cutting your energy bill as well. When it comes to reducing your carbon footprint, you can't get any more practical than that.
Tux Turkel writes frequently about business and energy issues. He's based in Portland, Maine.