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Carbon-Footprint Calculator Helps Lazy Americans Fight Climate Change

More Americans have been giving themselves a break on taking actions to limit climate change. That needs to stop.

Last time you needed to run out to the store or decided to pop over to a friend’s house, did you bike or walk? Or did you think, “It’s awfully hot/cold/rainy/humid out today. There’s that hill. I’m kind of tired. My feet hurt. Maybe I’ll just drive this time.”

If it was the latter, you’re not alone. Two climate-change communications research centers, one at Yale, the other at George Mason University, found that more Americans have been giving themselves a break on taking actions that would limit climate change. We’re less likely in the winter to turn the thermostat down to 68 degrees or cooler. We’re less likely to carpool. We’re less likely to bike or walk instead of driving.

These drops have been particularly pronounced in the last year. In 2010, most Americans (56 percent) reported that they often or always turned down the heat. Now less than half of us do—just 45 percent. But we began slipping even before this year: In 2008, more than three-fifths of Americans (62 percent) were keeping their thermostats low. And not only are we going easy on ourselves, we’re telling ourselves that it doesn’t matter. That our actions won’t change anything. We’re pessimistic about the impact of choices that other Americans and other people in industrialized countries are making, too.

But that’s not right. Individual households in the United States are responsible for a huge chunk of the country’s carbon emissions. The latest data available from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that when electricity use was factored in, the residential sector accounted for about 17.5 percent of the country’s 2009 greenhouse gas emissions. In comparison, the industrial sector accounted for 28.8 percent—more, but not that much more. Plus, the EPA numbers for the residential sector just cover electricity used for lighting, heating, cooling, and powering appliances and gas used for heating or cooking. Estimates for the percentage of emissions associated with all household consumption are as high as 80 percent of the country’s total.

Just by making different consumption choices, we can reduce our emissions by as much as 20 percent in one household. We know what these choices are: Weatherize your house or apartment. Choose energy-efficient appliances. Drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Carpool, or don’t drive at all.

The same exact carbon-saving advice doesn’t apply to everyone. As Christopher Jones and Daniel Kammen of University of California, Berkeley, showed in a study published this past March, people living in different places, in different family circumstances, create carbon in different ways. A two person, higher-income family in San Francisco does the most damage by driving and by jetting off on vacation or for business meetings. A four person, lower income family in St. Louis is burdened with electricity fueled by dirty energy sources, hot summers, cold winters, and more people to feed. This family could also save energy by driving a more fuel-efficient car, but they could also east less meat or turn off their appliances.

Data from the UC-Berkeley study went into making this carbon footprint calculator, which tailors carbon-saving advice to you, taking into account where you live, how much money you earn, and your consumer behaviors. It tells me that I could save the most tons of carbon by buying more of my electricity from green sources. That’s easy enough to do.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Auntie P.

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