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Fighting Climate Change In Your Daily Life, Part 2

Editor's note - This is the second in a multi-part series by guest blogger Dr. James Crooks. Part 1 can be found here [Link].

Part 2 - Your Carbon Footprint

Before you can reduce your family’s carbon footprint you first ought to know what your current household emissions actually are. So this weekend while you’re doing bills take an extra five minutes to figure it out. Of course your natural gas/fuel oil/propane bill, your electricity bill, and your gas pump all report energy usage in different units, which makes the task difficult, but fortunately the EPA has done the hard work for you. Just use the EPA Carbon Footprint Calculator tool [Link]. To use it you’ll need to enter the number of people in your household, your zip code (the energy mix of the electric grid varies by location), the energy source used to heat/cool your home, some basic information from your monthly power bill, the number of cars you drive, the distance you drive them each year and their gas mileage, as well as the materials you recycle. Probably the only information you’ll have to actually look up is your power bill, but once you have it the tool takes only 1-2 minutes to use. If you’re a data nerd like me you can also download the Excel spreadsheet underlying the tool. At the end you’ll get a report detailing what your footprint is and the contributions to it from home energy, transportation, and waste. How did you do? Are you below the national average of 19,702 pounds per person? What about the average for your zip code (which is confusingly labelled “U.S. Average” on the report)?

There are no "clean" fossil fuels,

just different kinds of dirty.

As you go through the tool you can optionally select ways you might try to reduce your carbon emissions in the future. If you choose to do this your final report will estimate both your current footprint and your future footprint. In later posts I will point you toward specific programs to help you make even bigger cuts in your emissions.

It’s important to note that the EPA tool does not quantify the full environmental harm caused by fossil fuel use. Non-CO2 impacts include decreased water quality due to fracking and mining tailings, methane leakage from oil and natural gas wells and pipes, earthquakes from wastewater injection, not to mention local and regional air pollution. There is no such thing as “clean” fossil fuels, just different kinds of dirty.


Extra Credit #1

If you’re curious about the mix of power sources your electric utility is using to generate your electricity, go to the EPA PowerProfiler website [Link] and enter your zip code. This will break out the energy mix in your neighborhood by emissions sector (coal, natural gas, nuclear, etc…). Note that the results are just for grid electricity and don’t include the natural gas piped into your house or any heating oil you might use.

Extra Credit #2

If you’re curious how carbon-intensive your neighborhood is compared to other neighborhoods check out this map of carbon footprint by zip code [Link]. Keep in mind that the footprint reported on the map includes more kinds of energy usage than does the EPA tool (e.g., food and airline flights) so direct comparisons are imprecise. What do you think causes the bullseye pattern around many large cities or the big red blob in the Midwest?

Next week - Part 3, Put solar panels on your house

Dr. James Crooks is an environmental health researcher and statistician at National JewishHealth, a respiratory research hospital in Denver, Colorado. He researches the health effects of climate-driven extreme air pollution events. He's also interested in genomics, toxicology, and infectious diseases. Before joining the faculty of National Jewish he worked for seven years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He earned a Ph.D. in physics and a M.S. in statistics from UNC Chapel Hill. He is a husband and the father of two boys.

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