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Climate Change: The Individual's Role
Table of Contents
Background and Overview
Contributing Causes of Global Warming
Impacts of Global Warming
Reasons for Action
Climate Change Solutions
The Individual's Role
Where To Go for Help
Complete List of Links

How Can Individuals Reduce Climate Impacts?

In the U.S., more than half of direct energy-related emissions come from large stationary sources such as power plants, while one-third comes from transportation. According to the EPA, other industrial processes also contribute significantly (over and above their energy use and transportation). Other contributors include activitives and releases relating to production of goods and food, including land use and management, deforestation, mining, and other anthropogenic activities. Because much of this activity is conducted to produce, distribute, (and usually dispose of) goods and food, consumption must also be considered as a contributing source.

Individuals and homeowners can reduce their contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG)emissions and climate change by cutting back on energy, transportation, materials, and other activities. The following information provides several suggestions for individuals.

Understand How, and How Much, You Are Contributing

The best way to start is to understand your contribution. The EPA's Household Emissions Calculator (along with several other online carbon calculators) can estimate a household's GHG emissions. Using EPA's calculator, one can also estimate possible reductions by making various changes. Other examples of personal (or household) calculators include Environmental Defense Fund's Personal Calculator and National Wildlife Federation's Green Energy Calculator. While these cannot capture every source of GHG emissions, they do provide good estimates, valuable information for change, and benchmarking.

Reducing Residential Contributions to GHG Emissions

Individuals contribute to GHG emissions whenever they warm, cool, or light their homes and use appliances and electric devices. This is a result of burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity (at the plant), or burning natural gas or other fuels to generate heat for the house or appliances. The main fossil fuels include coal, oil, and natural gas. From a global warming perspective, the most egregious form of fossil fuel burned to create electricity or to power furnaces is coal. Coal provides about half of the U.S. electricity supply and more than 30 percent of our global warming pollution. Coal is abundant in the U.S. and in many other countries. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, if the countries of the world continue to burn coal at today's rate, carbon reduction goals cannot be met. Carbon capture technology on coal-fired power plants is not currently available.

For all individuals, and especially those whose electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, energy conservation plays an important role and is an excellent strategy for reducing global warming impacts of fossil-fuel-based energy. One small way to reduce energy use in homes is to change as many incandescent bulbs as possible to compact fluorescents (CFL), and hopefully in the near future, some applications for LED lighting. The EPA's Energy Star CFL calculator allows for quick calculation of energy (and money) savings using CFLs instead of incandescents. According to this calculator, if 18 households changed out one 60-watt incandescent for one 15-watt CFL bulb, for three hours per day usage, this is the equivalent carbon dioxide savings of removing one average vehicle (and national average annual miles traveled) for one year.

Purchasing energy-efficient appliances, using them wisely, and maintaining them are steps homeowners can take. Energy Star Qualified Products, certified after 2008 (when Energy Star tightened their standards) may provide valuable input for purchasing decisions for new appliances.

There are many, many ways to reduce energy use in the home - just a few of which include the following:

  • Wash clothes in cold water.
  • Take shorter, cooler showers.
  • Dry clothes outdoors on the line whenever possible.
  • Get rid of an extra freezer or refrigerator.
  • Turn lights and computers off when not needed.
  • Adjust the thermostat; dress warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
  • Run full loads in the dishwasher and washing machine.
  • Weatherize.
  • Insulate (including crawl spaces, heating ducts, hot water pipes).
  • Seal air ducts.
  • Replace inefficient appliances and windows.
  • Buy and use low-flow shower and sink aerators.
  • Switch to CFL bulbs where possible.


Vehicles in the United States release more carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution than the entire country of India emits from all its sources—electricity, heating, factories, and vehicles—combined. Americans also burn a quarter of the world’s oil, according to Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) statistics, and 40 percent of that is in passenger vehicles—8.7 million barrels a day.

Choice of vehicle, how you drive, how you maintain the vehicle, and reducing miles traveled, can play a crucial role in reducing the U.S. contribution of GHG emissions. Some transportation choices that can minimize impacts include the following:

  • If purchasing a vehicle, choose fuel-efficiency. (The U.S. Department of Energy and EPA have developed a Fuel Economy Guide. The EPA also has a Green Vehicle Guide to assist informed vehicle purchases.)
  • Drive less; and carpool, bus, bike, or walk more.
  • Drive sensibly; reduce speed, use cruise control on the highway, remove excess weight from the vehicle, and eliminate idling.
  • Maintain vehicle(s) to maximize gas mileage by keeping them well-tuned, inflating tires to specifications, and using your auto manufacturer's recommended weight of motor oil.

Changing Consumer Habits

A seemingly less direct source of emissions, but contributing significantly, are the products we purchase. The manufacture, use, and disposal of consumer products and foods generate GHG. A few suggestions for reducing this impact include:

  • Use reusable shopping bags.
  • Say no to junk mail.
  • Reuse what you can.
  • Recycle and compost everything your municipality accepts.
  • Ask yourself if you really need the product you are about to purchase.
  • Purchase locally made products and locally grown food.
  • Buy minimally packaged goods.
  • Buy concentrates (which minimizes shipment of water and packaging waste).
  • Reduce consumption of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO)-produced meat and poultry.
  • Don't buy bottled water.
  • View the "The Story of ..." videos for more inspiration (The Story of Stuff, The Story of Bottled Water, The Story of Electronics, by Annie Leonard.)


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Hub Last Updated: 5/7/2013