10 Things You Can Do To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

The UN says the globe needs to drastically reduce its carbon emissions to beat back climate change. Here's what individuals can do.


Feb. 6 2019, Updated 8:29 p.m. ET

This week, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered a sobering report. The scientists warned that the globe was on track warm 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040, a scenario that would lead to increased flooding, drought, wildfires, and food shortages.

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That leaves 12 years to change course, which is daunting to say the least. Many people have spent the week wondering what they can do to help, and while the bulk of the responsibility lies on the corporate and governmental level, there are a number of ways to reduce the carbon emissions we contribute in our daily lives. Here are a few steps to get started:

Eat less meat and dairy

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Scientific research from earlier this year suggests the single best thing you can do for the planet is to eat less meat and dairy products. Why the emphasis on veganism? Both the meat and dairy industries produce enormous amounts of emissions — and use vast amounts of land and water — to get their food to grocery stores. So try a non-dairy milk, order an Impossible Burger, or commit to doing Meatless Mondays. Even if you’re not ready to go full vegan or vegetarian, there are plenty of tasty plant-based options to add to your diet.

Start composting

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Food waste is a big problem in the United States. The Department of Agriculture estimates we waste 30 to 40 percent of our food supply — and that excess food winds up in a landfill, where it generates methane. One easy way to reduce your own kitchen waste is to start composting. It keeps your food scraps out of the landfill, promotes soil health, and reduces the demand for chemical fertilizers. If you have a backyard, you can start a compost pile. But if you’re a city dweller, investigate local composting programs in your area for bin options and collection sites.

Switch energy providers

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Support renewable power over fossil fuels by changing your energy provider. Options will vary depending on where you live, but this often means signing up for an energy service company (ESCO), a third-party provider that takes over your  utility bill. ESCOs do not directly power your home or disrupt your current grid service, but they do invest in local renewable sources on your behalf. Pricing and power sources among ESCOs can vary wildly, so make sure to do your research before you make the switch. And if you own your home, consider installing solar panels to generate your own clean energy.

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Bike or take the train to work

Travel emissions take their toll on the environment, whether they’re coming from a cross-country plane or a small sedan. So when you can, take your bike, hop the subway, or catch a carpool. When that's impossible, you can still make sure your car is running efficiently.

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Purchase carbon offsets

Another way to minimize the impact of your travel is to buy carbon offsets. Offsets are not a tangible thing you get in the store, but more of a concept. When you purchase a carbon offset, you’re essentially donating money to compensate for your emissions — money that goes to renewable energy projects, landfill gas capture, or reforestation efforts. Carbon offsets obviously don’t wipe out your footprint with the swipe of a credit card, but they’re a way to “balance” unavoidable flights and other emissions you can’t control. 

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Invest in efficient light bulbs and appliances

Want to improve your carbon footprint in five minutes? Replace your existing lights with energy-saving LED bulbs. You can slash your household power consumption even further by shopping for efficient coffee-makers and washing machines over clunkier, power-hogging appliances.

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Recycle your electronics

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You can recycle a lot more than aluminum and plastic, including your old computers and cell phones. When an electronic device sputters, don’t throw it in the trash. Find an e-waste collection site where it can live a second life. Best Buy, Staples, and many other stores offer take-back programs for your used goods, and your local municipality may also collect electronics — just check their guidelines for more info.

Get a cool roof

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Own a home? Manage an apartment building? If you’re in charge of the roof over your head, make sure it’s a cool one. Cool roofs reduce your energy consumption by reflecting more sunlight and absorbing less heat than standard models, making your home a more efficient (and affordable) place to live. They don’t require extensive construction, either — in many cases, a protective coating will turn your existing roof “cool.”

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Shop local

When you buy toothpaste from an online store, that little tube goes on a long journey from the fulfillment center to your door. There are processing plants, delivery trucks, and sometimes even planes involved in this simple transaction — and when your item arrives, it’s often wrapped in seven layers of plastic. You can eliminate at least a few of these steps and a lot of the packaging by shopping at the pharmacy across the street instead. As a bonus, you’re supporting local business.

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Support policies and laws that fight climate change

Individual actions are awesome, but as the IPCC report demonstrates, it’ll take government and corporate intervention to mitigate the effects of climate change. So rally around new ideas and laws that help the planet. Call your reps about the Endangered Species Act or carbon taxing or the Clean Power Plan. Has your mayor committed to uphold the goals of the Paris Agreement? If not, ask them why. Keep track of new bills or policy changes that come across your city, state, and federal assemblies — and when they implement positive structural change, cheer them on.

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