August 30, 2017 by Jean
Recently, I have been reading The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living (Island Press 2012). The book argues that we can make individual changes that will have a meaningful impact on global warming and climate change. This is especially true for those of us who live in the United States, because Americans produce more carbon emissions per capita than do people from most other countries. According to data published by the World Bank, Americans produced an average of 16.4 metric tons of carbon each in 2013 (the most recent year for which the data were available). By comparison, Canadians were responsible for an average of 13.5 metric tons each and the inhabitants of the European Union countries produced 6.7 metric tons per capita. People often argue that the United States can’t do much about climate change because China and India are much bigger polluters – but that’s true only because China and India have much larger populations. On a per capita basis, the Chinese produced 7.6 metric tons of carbon each in 2013, and the inhabitants of India produced only 1.6 metric tons each. (In other words, it takes ten Indians to create the same carbon footprint as one American.) The book challenges each of us to reduce our individual carbon emissions by twenty percent.
The first part of this book sets the stage for making meaningful individual changes by presenting the evidence that climate change is real and the evidence that individual choices and actions matter. It also argues that making effective individual changes requires knowing which changes matter and “sweat[ing] the right stuff.”
Part II, “Making Effective Climate Choices” is the heart of the book. The authors break down the average American’s carbon emissions into five major categories – transportation (28%), stuff you buy (26%), home heating and cooling (17%), other home energy use (15%), and food (14%). They then devote a chapter to each of those sources of carbon emissions, further breaking them down into their components and providing guidance to which kinds of individual actions can be most important in meeting the challenge of reducing your personal carbon footprint by 20%. For example, in the largest category of carbon emissions for the average American, transportation, 92% of our transportation emissions come from driving, with the remaining 8% primarily from air travel. Thus, for most of us, reducing our carbon footprint primarily involves what kind of vehicle we drive and how much we drive it. After a detailed discussion of how to reduce our carbon emissions from driving, the authors sum up what it means to “sweat the right stuff” as follows:
Most of us can literally save tons of emissions (for years to come) with a single action: replacing an existing car with a far more fuel-efficient one. It that step is not practical this year (or your car is already fuel efficient), you can still get a long way toward the 20 percent goal by combining several strategies from this chapter that reduce the miles you travel, such as trip chaining, carpooling, leaving your car at home one or more days per week, changing your driving habits, and reducing your long-distance travel. (p. 81)
I probably can’t get as much carbon savings from transportation as the average American can. I already drive a fuel-efficient hybrid car, combine (or chain) trips, and leave the car in the driveway at least 2 (preferably 3) days per week. And since my retirement, I have done very little air travel. For me, a better way to “sweat the right stuff” is to focus on home heating and other home energy use. I live alone in a single-family house in an area of the country (northern New England) where the heating season is more than six months long. When I put the new addition on my house, I took some steps to install more efficient heating, which has reduced my carbon emissions; but I need to have an energy audit done so that I can find out where I’m leaking heat from the older part of my house and to plug those leaks. I can also do more to increase the energy efficiency of my lighting.
Cooler Smarter is an empowering book. It makes a compelling case that each of us can reduce our carbon emissions by 20% through serious, but not overwhelming effort. And if we all met the 20% challenge, our emissions would become more like those of the Europeans; and this really would slow global warming with its catastrophic effects. The book ends by urging us all go take individual action to reduce our own emissions, but also to go beyond these individual choices and support political action that can help to ensure a future for our planet and our species.
I intend to take the 20% challenge, and I hope many of you will join me.