08/13/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

By the Numbers: Impacting Climate Change

Let's assume Washington isn't passing sweeping climate change legislation in the near future. What should or could we do to alter the emissions of greenhouse gases? We can make big impacts by using energy-efficient technologies and buying renewable energy. But the problem is that most of the info available is too technical for the general public. It doesn't really help explain where to start and how each action improves the situation. So in an attempt to breakthrough all the data and dialogue on the topic, I'm writing this series to show what's the best options we have to influence the best outcome around the challenge of a warming planet.

How we Use Energy
The image below sums the totality of how the U.S. extracts, imports, exports, produces and consumes energy in quadrillion BTUs (or British Thermal Units).


A BTU is kinda like a calorie... the more you eat, the fatter you get. With BTUs, the more energy you gobble up, the more carbon you fart out into the atmosphere. The right-hand side of the chart shows four arrows: residential, commercial, industrial and transportation. These are the biggest and most significant energy users in the country. If you combine residential and commercial together, you get the impact of buildings and all the things we put in our homes, offices, stores and the like to make our lives modern such as computers, air-conditioners, heaters, lights and hot water (to name a few).

Carbon Emissions
Now take a look at the graph below -- it shows what sectors emit greenhouse gases. The commercial and residential sectors are shown as a fairly small emitter of carbon overall at 11 percent.


Looking at this, you would think that it's much more important to focus our attention on, say, transportation at 28 percent or even electricity at 33 percent. In fact, this is where most climate change advocates focus their attention. What it doesn't show is that nearly 75 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. is used by the commercial and residential sectors. Little math here: 75 percent of 33 percent is roughly 25 percent, which is to say, about a quarter of emissions from electricity production is for buildings. When we add that 25 percent to the 11 percent, we get the true carbon impact of the two sectors making the buildings we use daily the largest contributor of greenhouse gasses in America.

Cars compared to Homes
Cars, as well as SUVs and other light-duty trucks, are responsible for half of the carbon coming from the transportation sector, or essentially 14 percent. As individuals, we interact with our cars, homes, offices and other commercial buildings daily, and together these things represent 50 percent of all emissions in the U.S. Once we buy a car, we have little power to make them more efficient. The same is often true for most of the buildings we use on a regular day. We can't really influence how or what kind of energy a bank or restaurant uses. But in our homes, apartments, townhouses and coops, we have a great deal of choice. We can pick energy efficiencies that save tons of energy. Many of the options are at our local hardware stores or easily found online. The cost benefits for using less energy is also a hotly discussed advantage to consuming less energy. But where to start, and what's the overall carbon reduction associated with the options? We'll dive into that in the next post.