Can One Person Really Make a Difference?

This guest post is an excerpt from Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, written by the Union of Concerned Scientists and published by Island Press. Find out more at

You may feel that your hands are simply too full with work or raising your kids to get into the "saving the planet" business. If you are curious enough to look through Cooler Smarter, though, you will still find valuable information. Many of the choices offered in the book won't just lower your emissions of carbon dioxide; they can also improve the quality of your life, save you money and time, and even improve your health.

That's what the people of Salina, Kansas, found when they entered a yearlong competition with neighboring cities in their state to see who could save the most on their energy bills. Many residents of Salina have doubts about the findings of climate science. Nonetheless, these Kansans say they don't like their nation's dependence on foreign oil; plus, like most Americans, they are thrifty and very much like saving money. During this contest, the entire city of Salina (population 46,000) was able to reduce its overall carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent. Jerry Clasen, a local grain farmer, captured the prevailing sentiment, commenting, "Whether or not the earth is getting warmer, it feels good to be part of something that works for Kansas and for the nation."

As the folks in Salina discovered, the inefficient use of energy in the United States makes it easy for anyone seeking to reduce emissions to reap quick rewards. Did you know, for instance, that fossil fuel power plants typically release roughly two-thirds of their energy as waste heat? Or that less than 20 percent of the gasoline a car burns goes toward propelling it down the road? Even without changing to renewable power sources that can generate electricity with zero carbon emissions, we can dramatically increase the efficiency of our use of fossil fuels with cost-effective, off-the-shelf technology. By one estimate, technologies to recover energy from waste heat and other waste resources in the United States potentially could harness almost 100,000 megawatts of electricity—enough to provide about 18 percent of the nation's electricity.

But we don't have to wait for more efficiency to be built into the system. As end users of this energy, we have at our disposal a wide variety of simple techniques to squeeze much more out of our current energy use, saving money and reducing our emissions.

What this means for you is that you can probably make some simple changes that will yield real improvements in your energy efficiency. Not long ago, a Canadian utility company drove home this point in a much-lauded television commercial that urged its customers to conserve energy. The ad depicts individuals engaging in laughably wasteful behavior. One guy is wrapping his sandwich in aluminum foil, but instead of using one sheet, he keeps wrapping and wrapping until he has used the entire roll. A woman takes just one bite of an apple, then drops it on the ground and picks up a new one, repeating this mindless act until the camera zooms out to reveal the ground below her strewn with bitten apples. The spot ends with a family going out of their house without turning out any of its brightly burning lights. It leaves the viewer to ponder why this behavior isn't every bit as preposterous as the others.

In many ways, the issue really is that simple. If you live in the United States, on average your activities emit a whopping 21 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. That's one of the highest per-person emission rates in the world and some four times higher than the global average.

Compared with our counterparts around the world, we are responsible for outsized emissions and outsized costs. The emission levels of the average American are roughly four times the global average, as noted above, and they are also roughly 15 times those of the average citizen of India. To be sure, poverty in many parts of India, as in many countries, keeps personal consumption—and associated emissions—far below the level currently found in the United States. But on a per capita basis, even most industrialized European countries—with standards of living similar to those in the United States—emit less than half the carbon dioxide the United States does.

When you do the math, it reveals that, on average as an American, your activities emit just over 115 pounds of carbon dioxide daily. Think about that for a moment: your actions are responsible for sending a fair portion of your total body weight up smokestacks and out tailpipes every day. And the heat-trapping carbon dioxide each of us is contributing is accumulating in the atmosphere to cause global warming.

Can we reduce our global warming emissions? Of course we can.

Bear in mind, for instance, that just two decades ago the chemicals in many common products, from refrigerators to hair spray, were eating away at the protective ozone layer in the atmosphere. The resulting ozone hole seemed to present an insurmountable global problem. But with effective planning and innovation, we tackled the problem. Citizens, scientists, and government officials came together to phase out the harmful substances responsible for the problem. Today the stratospheric ozone layer is on a path to recovery.

READ MORE: Good News and Bad News About the Ozone Hole

The point is that difficult problems aren't always as intractable as they seem. That doesn't mean they are easy to solve, of course, as any of the concerned citizens, activists, and government officials could attest.

READ MORE: Rio+20 Ends With a Thud

Let's be clear: Global warming is much greater in scope than a burning river and more complex than a hole in the ozone layer. But people caused the problem, and people can solve it. We already have many of the tools and technologies we need to address global warming. The key is for each of us to begin to work toward solutions.

TreeHugger readers can get a copy of Cooler Smarter at a 30 percent discount. Simply head over to Island Press and use the coupon code 2Hug.

Can One Person Really Make a Difference?
The planet is facing some major problems. Just how much impact can a single person's actions have?

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