Carbon Savings at Home -- A Little Can Go a Long Way

Recently a Chicago Tribune reporter asked me how consumers could get the most bang for their "green" buck. Specifically, which changes in household practices, she wanted to know, would reap the biggest reward for consumers in terms of reduced global warming pollution. The Green Grok team has come up with some simple, perhaps surprising tips to cut carbon emissions.

The average U.S. household is responsible for about 132,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year. Of that total about 53,000 lbs. are emitted directly from the electricity we use, the gasoline we pump, and so forth, while the rest is embedded in the goods and services we use.

It's important to note that the numbers used here are for an averaged composite U.S. household and that they may differ considerably from your household. A number of web sites can help you calculate your family's carbon footprint, but bear in mind that usually these so-called carbon calculators estimate your direct emissions only and do not include the embedded emissions.

Controlling Your Carbon Footprint

In general, our carbon footprint is a factor of where and how we live, work, drive, fly, and play. We'll see here that you do have some control over your own carbon footprint -- maybe more than you think. Let's look at how choices at home, on the road, and at the grocery store can all lower your carbon footprint and fight global warming.

Racking Up Annual Savings at Home ...

There are a myriad of ways to reduce your carbon footprint around the house -- and why not do them? Often those energy savings translate into money savings as well. Here are a few tips and the annual savings they'll net in terms of carbon emissions.

  • Turning down your water heater 20 degrees saves up to 220 lbs. of CO2 (Most water heaters are set to 140˚F and above when 120˚F is sufficient)
  • Raising your A/C temperature from 76˚F to 78˚F saves 300 lbs. of CO2
  • Washing your clothes in warm or cold water saves 600 lbs. of CO2
  • Replacing one 60-watt incandescent bulb with an equivalent 13-watt compact fluorescent light (CFL) saves 226 lbs. of CO2
  • Swapping 10 light bulbs for 10 CFLs saves 2,260 lbs. of CO2
  • Swapping 20 light bulbs for 20 CFLs saves 4,500 lbs. of CO2
  • Replacing an electric water heater with a gas one saves 1,850 lbs. of CO2
  • Replacing an electric water heater with a solar one saves 4,820 lbs. of CO2

These numbers suggest that the clear winner at home is using compact fluorescent bulbs. It is by far the easiest way households can have a big impact on their home energy use. After all replacing 20 light bulbs is a lot easier than installing a solar water heater and yet it has a similar carbon savings. So if you are going to do one thing, do this.

Ramping Up Annual Savings on the Road*...

  • Keeping the correct air pressure in your tires saves 300 lbs. of CO2
  • Driving 10 miles less per week saves 410 lbs. of CO2
  • Driving just 20 miles less per week saves 820 lbs. of CO2
  • Driving a car that gets 10 mpg more saves 3,000 lbs. of CO2

Driving has such a large carbon footprint that by cutting back on the miles we drive, households can easily lower their carbon footprints. Reducing the miles driven by 10 or 20 miles a week -- one errand for many of us -- can have a big impact. And even more important, when you shop for your next new car, pick one with the best fuel efficiency in the car class that you need.

Loading Up on Annual Savings Through Food Choices...

  • Switching from eating red meat and dairy to chicken, fish, or vegetables for just one day a week saves 600 lbs. of CO2
  • Eating a plant-based diet for just one day a week saves 930 lbs. of CO2
  • Choosing all 'local' foods saves 1400 lbs. of CO2
  • Replacing a diet of red meat and dairy with a 'chicken, fish, and vegetables' diet saves 4,300 lbs. of CO2
  • Replacing a diet of red meat and dairy with a plant-based diet saves 6,500 lbs. of CO2

Surprisingly, changing your diet to one that includes less meat and relies more on local produce is one of the most effective ways to lower your carbon footprint. Cutting back on meat has other benefits as well.Now, cutting out meat is a hard choice, I know, because I eat meat too. But even so, a little restraint can go a long way. By dropping meat and dairy from your menu for just one day a week and buying local foods, you can trim your footprint by about 2,330 lbs. of CO2. Switching things up when it comes to meals starts at the grocery store -- to eat low-carbon foods, you have to buy low-carbon foods. Take a look at this video for some tips on how to do this

Recapping CO2 Savings: The Big Picture

If going vegetarian is just not your cup of tea, here's another way to look at things that can make a big difference.

If your family were to change just 20 light bulbs and drive 20 fewer miles each week (in a 25 mpg car), you could lower your direct carbon emissions by 5,330 lbs. That'd be lowering your family's direct carbon emissions footprint by 10 percent.

If you are really serious and do everything we've suggested above, you could reduce your total carbon footprint by almost 20 percent. That's huge, and when done en masse, we could start to make a dent in our global warming pollution.

But even if we all really changed things up like many of us are starting to, it wouldn't be enough to get us to the 80 percent cut in emissions by 2050 -- the amount that many scientists believe is necessary to avoid the more dangerous consequences of climate change.

More fundamental changes in our economy and energy infrastructure are going to be needed. That is why, in addition to lowering our carbon footprint, many of my colleagues and I are calling for major policy changes on the national level. Staying informed about our country's need to lead on this issue is critical to tackling the problem.

Let us know which steps you and your family are taking to lower your carbon footprint this summer. Leave us a comment or send us a video response on youtube.


Numbers are based on average U.S. household. Home and transportation figures include direct emissions only. Food savings include both direct and indirect life-cycle emissions. All greenhouse gas savings are on an annual basis. Average all-electric household spends $1,300 on home energy. Average kWh produces 1.32 lbs. of CO2. Average therm produces 12 lbs. of CO2.
*Driving statistics are based on the average American who drives 13,000 miles annually in a car rated at 25 mpg. Burning 1 gallon of gas produces 20 lbs. of CO2. Average kWh costs $0.10.

Dr. Bill Chameides is the dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He blogs regularly at