State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Can You Survive Our Climate Week Challenge?

compact fluorescent light bulb
Energy efficient light bulbs can help shrink your carbon footprint—and your energy bills. Photo: Armistead Booker via Flickr CC

It’s Climate Week in New York City. Government leaders, businesses, and NGOs are gathering in the Big Apple to talk about climate change, attend events (including a few hosted by Earth Institute centers), and push for action on what is arguably the most pressing challenge of our generation.

With the federal government dismantling environmental regulations left and right, what can anyone do to combat climate change? Well, you can’t control the government, but you can control your own actions—and although they may seem small, they really do matter. “Individuals make many personal choices that, when added up, have an important impact on global greenhouse gas emissions,” says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, a member of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

So, how about trying out a few environmentally friendly new habits? To help you out, we’ve set up a whole week of climate change challenges for you—just one per day. We dare you to try out these little lifestyle tweaks, and see if you can incorporate some into your regular routine. If you do them with us, and tell your friends, it could make a big difference.

Day 1: Unplug the appliances you’re not using

For the first day of Climate Week, you’ll be slaying energy vampires. “Vampire” appliances use electricity even when they’re turned off, and they could be adding an extra 10 percent to the cost of your monthly electricity bill. For the average American household, that’s about 1,100 kilowatt hours of energy wasted per year, and nearly an extra ton of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

Anything in your home with a digital clock or LED light on it is definitely an energy-sucker. Think microwaves, coffee pots, cable boxes. Your computer and phone chargers are energy hogs, too, even when your gadgets aren’t plugged in. Watch out for air conditioners and space heaters as well.

The solution is pretty easy: Just unplug these things when you’re not using them. If you plug multiple energy vampires into one power strip, you could turn them all off with the flip of a switch. Some of the smarter power strips will even flip their own switches, blocking the electric current based on a timer or motion sensor.  

Taking out energy vampires has an added bonus: it could save you $100 to $200 a year on your electric bill.

Day 2: Tweak your thermostat

If you live in a hot region, try raising your thermostat by two degrees. Or, if you live in a cool region, try turning it down by two degrees. Chances are you won’t really notice the difference, and because your heater or air conditioners will have to work less, you’ll reduce both your utilities bill as well as your carbon footprint. Energy Star estimates that on hot days, turning up the thermostat by just two degrees and using a fan can lower air conditioning costs by up to 14 percent throughout the summer.

To go one step further, try programming your thermostat to adjust by 5 to 8 degrees while you’re sleeping or not at home. Letting your house get a little bit hotter in on summer days and a little bit colder during winter nights could potentially save you $180 per year.

Day 3: Ditch your plastic beverage bottles

In 2007, America burned an estimated 32 to 54 million barrels of oil to produce plastic water bottles, resulting in millions of tons of carbon emissions. And that’s not even counting soda and other beverage bottles, or the emissions that come from transporting those drinks to your local vending machine or convenience store. Bringing your own reusable water bottle and refilling it throughout the day will help you save money, cut carbon emissions, and send less trash to landfills or nature.

Day 4: Replace five incandescent lightbulbs with energy-efficient ones

Energy Star light bulbs use 75 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs, which means 75 percent fewer carbon emissions per lamp. They’re more expensive than traditional bulbs, but they’ll save you a bundle in the long run: Energy Star estimates that replacing the five light bulbs you use most often with energy efficient bulbs could cut your electricity bill by $70 a year, and could last up to 10 times longer than the traditional kind. Plus, energy-efficient bulbs generate 70 percent less heat, which could save on cooling costs in the summer.

Day 5: Go meat-free for a day

Agriculture generates nine percent of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions. Those gases vent off of manure and fertilizers, the machines used to plant and harvest crops, and the rear-ends of livestock, mainly cattle. And because animals aren’t particularly great at converting their plant-based food into calories, meat has a much larger carbon footprint than plant-based foods.

brown and white cow
Eating less meat—especially beef—can dramatically cut your carbon emissions. Photo: Rob Best via Flickr CC

According to one study, diets heavy in meat products produce nearly double the greenhouse gas emissions than vegetarian or vegan diets. The diets of heavy meat-eaters (people who ate more than 100 grams, or 0.22 pounds, of meat per day) generated the equivalent of 7.19 kilograms of carbon dioxide a day, compared to 3.81 for vegetarians and 2.89 for vegans. For reference, 7.19 kilograms is nearly 16 pounds a day—that’s a lot of globe-heating gas.

Of course, going vegetarian or vegan won’t work for everyone. But cutting back on meat consumption helps, too. People who ate medium (50-99g) or low (<50g) amounts of meat had GHG emissions on the order of 4.67 and 3.91 kilograms per day. If you’re currently a heavy meat eater, going meat-free for one day a week could slash your emissions by 385 pounds a year!

Day 6: Take a day off from driving

We all know our cars are a huge source of carbon pollution. The average passenger vehicle spews about five tons of carbon dioxide into the skies each year, which is why giving up your car is one of the best things you can do to fight climate change. Not everyone can live without a car, but cutting down on your car trips is another way to help. For Day 6 of Climate Week, we challenge you to not drive your car for a day. Try walking or biking instead. Or take public transportation, and use the time to read a book, catch up on email, watch a tv show, or enjoy other activities that you can’t do while driving. Bet you could get used to this, right?

If there’s a driving obligation you simply can’t avoid today, an alternative challenge is to replace just one car trip with a bike, walk, or public transit. And in the long-run, when it’s time to replace your car, consider investing in a hybrid or electric vehicle.

Day 7: Contact your local and state governments

Ok, this challenge won’t technically reduce your carbon footprint, but letting your representatives know that you want them to take climate change seriously can make a difference.

“Local governments play a central role in several aspects of the climate solution,” says Gerrard. “They set the building codes. Most energy is consumed in buildings, and so the energy efficiency of building construction and operations is extra important.” Local governments can also determine the zoning codes that may or may not pave the way for public transportation, and can choose to buy fleets of electric and high-efficiency government vehicles, he says.

State governments have even more capacity to regulate their greenhouse gas emissions, as California has shown. “California is the jurisdiction leading the world in fighting climate change,” says Gerrard. “They’re an excellent example.”

Find out how to contact your state and local representatives here.  

On this last day of Climate Week, take a few minutes to be proud about making a difference, and to reflect. Which of these habits you might be able to work into your regular schedule? Can you strive for Meatless Mondays, or work out a Work From Home Friday deal with your boss, to save gas? Let us know how it went by commenting below or tweeting at us.

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Ben Shearon
Ben Shearon
6 years ago

If these “Government leaders, businesses and NGOs” really believed any of this, they wouldn’t be “gathering” in New York. They could conference on line. That would save a lot more emissions than me unplugging my television. How are they getting around New York? Taxi?
Would is the carbon footprint of this conference?

5 years ago

a photo of a CFL for the top of your story? um, we’ve moved on to LED bulbs – you might want to do the same