The Twenty Percent Challenge


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.

8 thoughts on “The Twenty Percent Challenge

  1. JeanR says:

    I did a good job this summer by discovering I could live without the air conditioner on 24/7. I think I only turned it on 4 days all summer. It made a huge difference in my electric bill although I didn’t do it for that reason. I do need an energy audit on my house. It’s drafty in the winter..

    • Jean says:

      Jean, One of the things I love about living in Maine is that we don’t need air conditioning. I think we only had one night all summer that the temperature stayed above 70, and the ceiling fan above my bed kept me quite comfortable. I, too, have winter drafts that need to be addressed. This is the most likely place for me to find most of my 20% reduction in carbon.

  2. Joan says:

    I requested Cooler Smarter at the library. I try to be careful but it’s good to get a refresher course.

    • Jean says:

      Joan, I got it out of the library myself, although I may buy a copy. I love the practical but hopeful tone of this book. So many communications about climate change leave people feeling hopeless and helpless, but this left me feeling empowered.

  3. Brenda says:

    Retirement drastically cut our carbon emissions. We stay home most of the time, rarely travel, grow much of our own food, and most of the rest of our food is raised locally. Frankly, none of these changes were intentionally made to reduce carbon emissions, it’s just the way we like to live now. Although it’s good to know that our lifestyle helps in a small way, I suspect that–without political change–overall as a country, we will move backwards in the coming years, not forward.

    • Jean says:

      Brenda, I’m not sure how retirement affected my carbon emissions. On the one hand, I’m only heating and providing electrical power to one house instead of two and I almost never fly any more. On the other hand, I now drive much more. When I was working, I walked the mile each way to work and typically only drove my car a few miles a week (to get groceries). I’ve gone from putting gas in the car once every two months to filling up twice a month.

  4. Diana Studer says:

    Tomorrow’s hike I will travel with a new friend – so that is one journey less.
    Wish we lived in a city with good public transport, but I prefer suburban life on the urban edge, with a garden.
    We will keep our beloved old diesel Land Rover going while intensely aware that it is NOT a green option. Low kilometers tho.
    Winter heating is with cleared invasive aliens like Eucalyptus and Port Jackson wattle so that is sort of goodish.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I love the idea of heating with cleared invasives. The two retirement communities I’ve liked most are both on the edge of town, in the woods and with gardening opportunities, but also on public transit routes. In my current rural location, the only way to get anywhere is by driving.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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