04/26/2012 11:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

You Can Cut Your Carbon Emissions 20 Percent Over the Next Year


Every so often, a West Virginia commune descends on Washington, D.C., to hawk T-shirts and bumper stickers emblazoned with the slogan "Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution."

That's essentially what happened 42 years ago when more than 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day, which was celebrated last Sunday by more than a billion people in 192 countries. Because of that revolution back in 1970, our air and water are much cleaner than they were on the first Earth Day.

Four decades later, however, we are facing perhaps a much more intractable threat, one that we can't see and we can't smell: manmade global warming. The nations of the world made a commitment 20 years ago to tackle this problem, but progress at the national and international level has been frustratingly slow. In the meantime, there is mounting evidence that our climate is undergoing rapid changes that threaten our economy, our health and our national security.

It's time to stop bitching and start a revolution again.

The good news is that, individually, we can do quite a lot. According to a new book by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, we can significantly reduce our own carbon emissions right now by making smarter choices. What matters most, according to Cooler Smarter, is what -- and how -- you drive, how much energy you use at home, and what you eat.

The average American is responsible for about 21 tons of carbon emissions annually, according to UCS calculations. Cooler Smarter, the result of two years of research, provides the tools to cut those emissions by 20 percent over a 12-month period. If every American met this achievable goal, it would be the equivalent of shutting down a third of the nation's 600 coal-fired power plants.

I recently sat down with one of the authors of Cooler Smarter, Jeff Deyette, to ask him some questions about the book. Deyette is an energy analyst in UCS's Climate and Energy Program.

How much can individuals really do? Climate change is a global problem. Doesn't it require a global solution?

At this point there are no effective international or national agreements to cut heat-trapping emissions, so the Earth is on track to surpass the average temperature that world leaders set as a goal to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. That's one of the reasons we wrote this book. Individuals need to take matters into their own hands because our elected officials are wasting time. And if enough people follow the steps we recommend in our book, we can accomplish a great deal.

If you could suggest just one change for people to make, what would it be?

The most important single change for most Americans would be to trade in their gas-guzzler for a more fuel-efficient car. For example, if you traded in an SUV for a Toyota Prius or another efficient hybrid, you could cut your auto emissions in half. But just doubling your fuel economy by dumping a 20 [miles per gallon] car for one that gets 40 mpg would cut nearly 4 tons per year. The average American is responsible for 21 tons of emissions a year, so buying that more efficient car would nearly meet our 20 percent challenge in one fell swoop. At today's gas prices, that would save you as much as $18,000 over the 15-year life of the car.

Aren't hybrids too expensive for most Americans?

In this case, that old saying that you have to spend money to save money rings true. Investing in a hybrid would more than pay for itself. A new hybrid car costs $3,000 to $5,000 more than a comparable gasoline-only model. If you drive an average of 12,000 miles a year, you would save that much on $4-a-gallon gas over the first four to nine years you own the car. And if you're downsizing from a gas-guzzling SUV, a new hybrid may actually be cheaper than buying another SUV.

What if I'm not in the market for a new car this year, what else could I do to meet the 20 percent challenge?

Good question. Everyone's situation is different, so we've posted our 20 percent challenge at to help people figure out what makes the most sense for them. If you own a house, getting an energy audit to find and seal energy leaks can help reduce typical heating and cooling loss by 15 to 25 percent, which is equivalent to leaving a window wide open all year 'round.

Besides that, an old appliance can suck a lot of energy, so you should take a close look at your furnace, your air conditioning and your refrigerator. Lighting can eat a lot of energy, too. Switching to energy efficient bulbs can cut annual lighting bills by at least 75 percent, which would amount to a $140 annual savings for a typical household.

And don't forget, most Americans will buy a car sometime in the next five years, so even if you aren't in the market today, it is important to remember that when it comes to mpg, 40 is the new 30. Not that long ago, 30 mpg was the best you could do, but more and more makes and models now hit 40 mpg. That's what you should be aiming for.

I remember years ago that saying "You are what you eat." How can changing our eating habits have an impact?

The most effective way to lower carbon emissions in your diet is to eat less meat, especially beef. That doesn't mean you have to become a vegetarian or a vegan. Just eating smaller meat portions, or skipping it once and awhile, can make a big difference.

By and large, a diet rich in grains, vegetables and fruits would yield dramatically lower emissions than a meat-based one, and it's healthier, too. Just to give you an idea of the difference, we found that a pound of beef is responsible for about 18 times more carbon emissions than a pound of pasta.

The average American eats about 270 pounds of meat a year, which is nearly four times the global average. If an average American family of four cut their meat intake in half, they would reduce their carbon emissions by about 3 tons a year.

You're encouraging people to cut their carbon emissions by 20 percent in the next year. But don't scientists say we need much bigger reductions than that to avoid the worst effects of climate change?

It's true that we will ultimately have to make bigger cuts. But a 20 percent reduction right now is something that most of us can realistically accomplish, and it would make a world of difference.

That said, we will certainly need concrete initiatives at the national, state and municipal level and from the business community. But as individual citizens, we can't afford to wait. We need to take action now, and hopefully it will help motivate our institutions to follow suit. Top down hasn't been working. It's time for a more bottom-up approach.

Elliott Negin is the director of news & commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists. For more expert advice to reduce your carbon emissions, check out UCS's "Cooler Smarter" blog series.