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Little Things Add Up – Household Actions and Reductions in Greenhouse Gas Emissions
By Margaret H. C. Giblin   View more articles by this author
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January 12

In a previous article, I wrote about how each of our individual “green” actions can have a positive effect on the overall condition of our environment.  In November, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a study that quantifies just how much of an impact individual actions can have.  The authors examined 17 types of voluntary actions that households could choose to take to decrease their energy use and thus reduce their emissions.  How much of a potential impact could reducing household emissions have?  As it turns out, households in the United States account for 38 percent of our nation’s total carbon dioxide emissions, so a significant reduction in this sector would be a significant reduction in national – and global – greenhouse gas emissions.

The authors concluded that if a variety of efforts were made to encourage citizens to adopt the energy-saving measures at rates comparable to actual adoption of other energy-saving measures in the past, the United States could reduce its overall emissions by about 7.4 percent.  Stated differently, the potential emissions reductions would be greater than if the U.S. completely eliminated all emissions from the petroleum refining, iron and steel, and aluminum industries—or if the entire nation of France stopped emitting carbon dioxide altogether.

The authors acknowledge that voluntary household actions are not the complete solution to the problem of climate change.  The negotiations that led up to the Copenhagen conference last month must continue, and the international community must make meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors.  Here in the United States, such reductions may come as the result of new legislation currently being considered by Congress or by virtue of existing authority under the Clean Air Act.  Either way, as the authors of this study point out, such long-term policy solutions will likely take years to go into effect, while voluntary household actions can be implemented much more quickly.

What does all of this mean for those of us with “be greener” on our list of new year’s resolutions?  First, don’t underestimate your own political power.  If you’re interested in ensuring that the United States and the international community continue to work toward worldwide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, get in touch with your senators and representative in Congress and let them know. 

At the same time, keep in mind the positive impacts that your day-to-day lifestyle choices can have.  Here are some of those 17 household actions examined in the PNAS study.  Remember, this list is far from exhaustive—for one thing, the authors of this study wanted to focus on changes that wouldn’t result in big lifestyle changes.  Actions not on the list, like taking mass transit instead of driving, also result in decreased energy use and reduced emissions.

  • Regularly changing the air filter in your home heating/air conditioning system
  • Properly maintaining your car to maximize fuel efficiency
  • Washing your laundry in cooler water
  • Turning down the temperature on your water heater
  • Drying your clothes on a clothesline instead of in an electric dryer
  • Carpooling
  • “Trip chaining” (for example, running all your errands in the same trip instead of going to the grocery store, coming home, later going out to the dry cleaner, etc.)
  • Weatherizing homes (for example, by insulating attics, sealing drafts, installing high-efficiency windows, and replacing inefficient heating, ventilating and central air conditioning (HVAC) equipment)
  • Replacing old, inefficient appliances with newer, energy efficient ones
  • Upgrading to a more fuel efficient car


Are any of these actions that you could take?  If so, take them with the knowledge that you really are having an impact!  

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