So world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen to discuss ways governments can tackle global warming. For two weeks, we'll be seeing headlines out of Copenhagen, and 99% of them won't matter enough to make the average American pay attention. Which isn't to say the negotiations don't matter -- without government energy policies changing, we'll keep burning coal, oil and gas until the Earth's overheated. But these talks, the 15th session on the topic, unfolding over two weeks in a little European country, are about as bureaucratic and remote as you can get.
If you care enough to perk up your ears at the word "Copenhagen" but don't care about the details, focus on these four things which produce most U.S. carbon emissions, according to recent reports by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Product Policy Institute, which had some surprising conclusions about where our pollution originates. Since the United States still leads the world in per capita carbon emissions, this is one case where every individual action does matter.
Surprisingly, the single biggest contributor to the nation's carbon emissions comes not from driving cars or using light, but from buying "stuff." Products and packaging together account for 44% of our carbon emissions, because it takes a lot of energy to produce all those iPods and cell phones and artificial Christmas trees. So when you're out shopping this holiday, look for gifts that are minimally packaged, look for gifts made from recycled materials, and look for gifts that can either be recycled or that can be repaired. Or, choose an alternative gift, or make your own gifts and even your own wrapping paper.
Electricity use, and the heating and cooling of buildings accounts for 21% of the nation's carbon emissions. We've heard a lot of tips about saving electricity in the last couple years -- replacing old lightbulbs, unplugging your cell phone charger to kill phantom loads, turning off lights that aren't being used, etc. ... These steps do make a difference in cutting down on your electricity bill, which means less coal burned to produce electricity.
Beyond that, though, when it comes time to replace appliances, buy Energy Star-rated appliances that use less electricity. Particularly pay attention if you're replacing a furnace or an air conditioner (and be sure to cash in your $1,500 tax rebate if you make the switch before the end of 2010).
If you're landscaping, plant a tree or two. They don't just store carbon from the air, but if properly placed, they can provide shade and wind breaks that will reduce your energy bills.
And this season is a great time to think about sealing air leaks in your home, which can add 10% to your heating bill, and which can often be fixed cheaply with some caulk and weatherstripping. For bigger fixes, the federal government is offering up to $1,500 per household for qualifying energy efficiency improvements, so you can replace windows and doors or add insulation at a deep discount. Check out TDG's quick guide to home winterization projects..
To really tackle energy usage at home, hire a consultant to do an energy audit, or try TDG's DIY energy audit to get real data about which home fixes to tackle first.
We burn gas to drive cars, and 13% of the nation's carbon emissions come from local transportation. If you drive a car, maintain it so it runs as efficiently as possible (you can save up to 20% on gas costs). Carpool whenever possible and combine errands (you'll save money). If you're buying a new car, buy a fuel-efficient car. You can find a list of the most fuel-efficient 2010 cars and SUVs at TheDailyGreen.com. If you're moving, move close to work, school and the grocery store so you don't have to drive far. Move someplace that has easy access to a subway or bus line.
Food accounts for about the same amount of emissions as transportation, 12% nationwide. It turns out that a lot of the talk about "food miles" from a couple years ago matters less, from the perspective of carbon, than we may have been led to believe. But you can say that it takes a lot more energy to raise a pound of beef than a pound of grain, and it takes more energy to wrap fruit in plastic and put it on a Styrofoam tray than to put it in a bulk bin. So one easy way to reduce your impact is to eat less processed foods, and to cut down on how much meat you eat. (See more green eating tips.) This can also be a good thing for your health, of course, and it's easy if you start with just cutting out one meal per week. There are a lot of good cookbooks on the market right now, following on this trend of eating more at home to save money, so make a good vegetarian cookbook one of your Christmas gifts for the cook in your house and go with it.
When it comes down to it, these questions, like so many others we label "green," are as much about "value" than "values": You want to give gifts that offer years of enjoyment. You don't want to waste money on unneeded electricity or gasoline, and you want to eat well to stay healthy. Whether or not you "think global," acting local is just smart.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.