Climate change is the greatest challenge facing the world today. The enormity of the challenge can sometimes lead to a feeling of personal helplessness. Solutions are often portrayed by the media as out of reach, or requiring significant lifestyle changes, but there are many things you can do without appreciably changing your lifestyle or breaking the bank to address the climate crisis from right here on the Hill.
As an atmospheric scientist and environmental engineer, I’ve studied and worked in this field for my entire career. I am also a resident of Capitol Hill. Washington DC is a city that passed the most ambitious clean energy law in the U.S., and provides many opportunities to reduce your emissions.
Don’t get me wrong, solving the climate crisis will not be easy. But anything and everything we can do will make a difference. We can all take ‘medium-sized’ steps that will noticeably reduce our carbon emissions and set us down the path for greater emission reductions in the future.
If you are wondering where to begin, let’s start with understanding where carbon emissions for the average U.S. resident come from:
The average American emits 21 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 28 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation. On Capitol Hill, public transportation is ubiquitous, easy-to-use, and a ‘medium-sized’ and cost-effective step towards reducing your emissions. By taking public transportation to and from work, my family and I have reduced our transportation-related carbon emissions by more than 30 percent.
Electricity and residential heating/cooling together constitute 32 percent of personal carbon emissions on average. While purchasing ENERGY STAR appliances and LED light bulbs, unplugging electronics when you aren’t using them, and installing weatherstripping to keep conditioned air inside your home are all examples of important actions to improve the energy efficiency of your home, alone these are unfortunately not enough for significant reductions.
In addition to those actions, a reasonable ‘medium-sized’ step to reduce your residential carbon emissions is to purchase renewable electricity. Thanks to deregulation of the electricity market, DC provides consumers with competitive choices from a variety of electricity suppliers, including those that provide renewable electricity. PEPCO will still deliver electricity to your home and manage your bill, making the switch hassle free..
You can visit Green-e.org for a list of verified suppliers. The not-for-profit certifies renewable energy suppliers in DC to ensure they are providing accurate information to consumers. You may have even seen one of these suppliers going door-to-door. It is best to do your research before making a decision.
Switching to renewable energy is not prohibitively expensive. I live in a three-bedroom DC townhouse, and I pay only $240 more each year for 100 percent wind-generated electricity from Pennsylvania at a fixed two-year rate. If you live on the Hill, you also likely live in an attached townhouse or condo, which are already more efficient than suburban homes by better retaining conditioned air and by being smaller than their suburban counterparts.
Purchasing renewable energy also raises its demand in the marketplace, which in turn results in more renewable energy being built over time – part of a long-term solution to decarbonizing our electricity sector.
Purchasing solar panels for your home is another good option, with a number of federal and local incentives available to subsidize your cost. Through Green-e.org, I also found a company that will offset 100 percent of my natural gas usage with landfill-captured methane, which costs only $60 more per year. If you rent, talk with your landlord about cost-sharing these added expenses.
While not every household may be in a position to afford the additional $300 per year for clean electricity and natural gas, for those who can it is a relatively inexpensive and easy way to reduce a large fraction of your carbon emissions. Notably, there are a number of programs available from the District Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) to assist low- and middle-income residents and help meet DC’s sustainable energy goals, including the Weatherization Assistance and Solar for All programs.
In addition, the DC Sustainable Energy Utility Rebates program offers mail-in rebates to all DC residents for purchasing energy efficient appliances, heating and cooling systems, and smart thermostats.
There are other ways to address carbon emissions. In terms of food, we have cut back our consumption of red meat to a few times per month and eat two vegetarian meals per week. We are also more cognizant of our airline travel, all of which reduce our emissions further. There are also a large number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vendors that service Capitol Hill and a food waste drop off every Saturday at Eastern Market.
Through all of these efforts, my family has reduced our overall carbon emissions by 40%, and our carbon emissions are less than 40% of the average American (8.1 vs 21 metric tons CO2/yr/person), without substantially changing our lifestyles.
It is important to acknowledge that small and medium-sized personal actions will only get us so far. We need to elect public officials at all levels of government that will invest in new clean energy technologies and advocate for decarbonization of our public infrastructure. We must also be aware of our choices as consumers to encourage companies to pursue more sustainable business models. In addition to the steps we can take ourselves, we also have a role to play in influencing the big steps to address climate change.
I am optimistic that we will eventually solve the climate crisis. We already have many of the solutions. It will take a mixture of personal commitment, large-scale investment in new clean technologies, government action, and diplomacy, but it is achievable. I hope that you can take measures to substantive emission reductions of your own, possibly following the suggestions in this article, and continue to advocate for the big systemic steps as well.
If you would like more detailed information about your own emissions profile, you can use online calculators such as https://www.carbonfootprint.com. Please reach out to me with any thoughts or questions on Twitter at @John10Hoeve.