How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Get a breakdown of climate consequences of the purchasing decisions you make every day.

| August 15, 2012

  • Reduce Carbon Emissions
    “Cooler Smarter,” by the Union of Concerned Scientists, is an empowering guide that shows which changes in our lifestyles will make the biggest difference to the climate.
    Cover Courtesy Island Press
  • Emissions from Stuff You Buy
    The goods and services you purchase account for more than one-quarter of your emissions, or more than five tons annually for the average American. Source: UCS modeling.
    Chart Courtesy Island Press
  • Breakdown of Emissions from Stuff You Buy
    This chart provides a breakdown of the emissions associated with some of the goods and services you purchase. Source: UCS modeling.
    Chart Courtesy Island Press
  • Pounds of CO2 Saved From Recycling
    Each pound of waste you recycle keeps more than twice its weight in CO2e emissions out of the atmosphere. This graph shows the emissions saved by recycling one pound of material, as considered from a life cycle perspective, including reductions in the need for virgin materials and avoidance of potential methane emissions from disposal in a landfill.
    Chart Courtesy Island Press
  • Emissions Per Dollar Spent
    This graph shows global warming emissions created per dollar spent in various categories. Ranked in this way, water and sewage together make up our most carbon-intensive expenditure. Source: UCS modeling.
    Chart Courtesy Island Press

  • Reduce Carbon Emissions
  • Emissions from Stuff You Buy
  • Breakdown of Emissions from Stuff You Buy
  • Pounds of CO2 Saved From Recycling
  • Emissions Per Dollar Spent

While routine decisions that shape our days — what to have for dinner, where to shop, how to get to work — may seem small, collectively they have a big effect on global warming. Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living (Island Press, 2012), based on a comprehensive two-year study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains how to make the biggest impact and when not to sweat the small stuff. The following excerpt is taken from chapter 8, “The Right Stuff.”  

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS storeCooler Smarter

How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint With The Right Stuff

“You can’t have everything. I mean, where would you put it?”

—Steven Wright 



We have four major contributions to global warming. Transportation, heating and cooling, electric appliances, and food make up roughly three-quarters of our heat-trapping emissions. The wide variety of goods and services we buy account for the remaining quarter. It is a broad and diverse category, split fairly evenly between tangible items, such as furniture and clothing, and services, such as healthcare and legal advice.

As we will discuss, there are a number of ways to lower emissions in this category, but frankly, it’s harder to make a significant dent here than in the other categories. As the charts in the Image Gallery illustrate, most of the goods and services we buy have a relatively small impact on the climate, and some specific categories lie mainly outside our individual control.






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