If you follow these three steps to reduce your environmental impact, you can build a strong foundation for living a sustainable life.
If you’re interested in lessening your environmental impact and trying to live more sustainably, knowing where to begin can feel overwhelming. Over the past several years countless lists of green steps to take and green product comparisions have been published. All of those steps and comparisons are great, but there’s a way to simplify your approach by focusing on just three items: electricity, diet, and transportation.
Your electricity usage is one of the largest parts of your overall environmental impact. Fortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, you can easily choose where your electricity comes from.
Regardless of the specific energy mix of your state—how much energy comes from coal, natural gas, hydropower, nuclear, etc.—switching to a green power program that draws on all renewable energy is one of the strongest ways you can personally take a stand for renewable energy. Doing so isn’t a substitute for utilities using all-renewable energy as standard practice, but until that time comes, green power programs both send a signal to utilities that their customers care about how their electricity is generated, and reduce your personal environmental footprint.
How a Green Power Program Works: You pay a small surcharge (generally in the range of 1-3 cents more per kilowatt-hour of electricity, though this varies by the specific program) to ensure that all of the electricity you use comes from a renewable energy source. All electricity, regardless of how it was generated, gets fed into the same grid so you won’t necessarily be receiving energy from renewable sources alone. Rather, you’re paying for a certain amount of electricity generated in a renewable energy project (or projects), that then gets mixed in with electricity from all other energy sources.
How to Find a Green Power Program: Whether you own your home or rent, you can sign up for a green power program with your utility. They are available in most places and you can view a listing of all current green power programs at the Department of Energy.
The Impact: How much your footprint gets reduced will vary from place to place. In states where the electricity mix is nearly entirely hydropower the environmental footprint impact is much less than in places where coal is the primary way that electricity is created. In those places, switching to all renewables has a particularly large effect.
Compare the electricity mix at two ends of the spectrum in the United States: In Washington, 87 percent of the electricity is generated from hydropower and renewables, thereby producing very little in the way of greenhouse gas emissions. In West Virginia, the opposite situation exists, with 97 percent of electricity coming from highly polluting coal. The average for the nation is between these two extremes, with slightly under half of all electricity coming from coal.
For many of us, what we eat is dictated by habit, tradition, and what’s easily available and affordable around us. Nevertheless, if you want to build a solidly sustainable foundation for your life, taking a look at your diet is an important factor.
The Vegan/Vegetarian Diet: Focusing simply on the environmental impact of dietary choices, a vegan diet has the lowest environmental impact. Study after study shows this. The calculations on the environmental impact of different diets vary a bit, depending on where the boundaries have been drawn in choosing what to include, but a conservative assessment finds that a vegan diet produces the equivalent of 1.5 tons of CO2 emissions each year while a vegetarian diet produces 1.7 tons. An average ominvorous diet, including all types of meat, comes in at 2.5 tons annually. Another study translates the different impacts of dietary choices into how much it will cost to mitigate and adapt to climate change, finding that we can reduce these costs by 70 percent if people switched from a meat-based diet to one that is plant-based.
The Omnivore Diet: Of course, you have to listen to your body and your heart in determining your ideal diet. If you aren’t ready to, don’t want to, or can’t adopt a plant-based diet, you can start by cutting back on the amount of meat you eat.
You might adopt a single day of the week to not eat meat, or cut out meat for a meal or two each day. If you find that easy to do, then you might take it another step to eating meat only on holidays, special occasions, or weekends.
The Impact: The more you can make your diet plant-based, the healthier it is for you, animals, and the planet.
In many places, going without significant amounts of driving on a daily basis is difficult. Going without a car entirely, except if you live and work in a city with well-established public transportation, is often simply not an option. Nevertheless, the are four ways you can improve your carbon footprint when it comes to transportation.
Fuel Economy: When purchasing a new vehicle, buy the one with the best fuel economy you can find, that still meets your driving and budget requirements. If your normal driving needs can be satisfied with the range restrictions of electric vehicles, this is a great option. If for logistical reasons or cost an electric vehicle is not an option, a hybrid-electric vehicle offers the next best fuel economy. Choosing to convert a biodiesel car to run on waste-grease biodiesel is also an option, but it does require a level of engagement and planning.
The greatest environmental impact of driving a car is fuel consumption and using less gasoline or diesel fuel is one of the greenest things you can do. According to EPA’s calculations the carbon emissions for burning a gallon of gasoline is 8.9 kilograms per gallon. That means, for every 10,000 miles you drive in a car getting 25 mpg your emissions are 3,560 kilograms of CO2. If you drive a hybrid getting 50 mpg, your emissions are halved. A plug-in hybrid, running part of the time from electric batteries and part of the time from an internal combustion engine further reduces the amount of fuel consumed, and therefore its emissions. The greenhouse emissions from biofuel-powered vehicles varies widely, with some biofuels having emissions several times higher than fossil fuels, while others, like waste-grease biodiesel, having very low emissons. As for an all-electric vehicle, while it’s true that they have zero greenhouse gas emissions from the tailpipe, unless the electricity used to charge the batteries comes from renewable or low-carbon sources (such as a from a Green Power Program, see number 1 above) you’ve just shifted the pollution from the car to the power plant.
Reduce Your Driving: Consider ways that you can reduce your driving. If there’s adequate public transportation where you live, try using it. It is nearly always a greener option than driving a car. Beyond that, you can experiment with bicycling or walking in place of driving. If and when bicycling or walking are possible, they will not only reduce your carbon footprint, but improve your health as well.
Long-Distance Travel: The climate impact of a single flight is so large that it can cancel out many of the other energy-saving efforts you undertake. This is true even though on a global basis air travel and cargo transport represent a small segment of total greenhouse gas emissions, under 5 percent currently, but growing.
However, there are myriad benefits to travel that can outweigh any environmental impact. Try using this rule to gauge the relative environmental impact of different modes of motorized travel, going from greatest to least impact, and choose accordingly:
- Driving in a car alone
- Driving in a full car getting average fuel economy
- Long distance train and long distance bus (these are roughly the same)
- Driving in a full car that gets highest fuel economy
The Impact: In the United States, just under 27% of all energy used in the nation is for transportation, with all but a small amount coming from petroleum. By reducing the amount of energy you use for transportation, you’ll do your part to lower carbon emissions.