American households, if mobilized, hold the key to achieving enormous CO2 emissions cuts, well beyond what President Obama is offering at the Paris Climate Conference.
Paris represents the traditional top-down approach to carbon reduction, where leaders at a “summit” announce broad emissions reduction goals which they promise to implement over long time periods. While climate summits such as Paris are indispensable, their essential complement is a bottom-up commitment of the citizenry to reduce carbon emissions.
The U.S. pledge at Paris is to reduce U.S. CO2 emissions by 28% by 2025 relative to 2005 levels. This level of reduction can be achieved by closing coal-fired power plants, increasing vehicle efficiency standards, and implementing other measures which will not require new legislation nor significantly affect consumers. Unfortunately, the U.S. pledge, combined with the anticipated pledges of other nations, will be insufficient to meet the goal of stabilizing global temperatures at 2 degrees above present temperatures by 2050, unless followed by draconian cuts after 2025. In short, we are pledging too little and leaving the hard work until later.
There is a way that emissions cuts can be realized sooner: An enormous, largely untapped source of CO2 emissions cuts is in the hands of citizens like you and me. Households’ use of energy to fuel cars and heat and light homes is responsible for nearly half of all U.S. CO2 emissions. If the CO2 emitted in the manufacture and transport of consumer goods and services is factored in, consumers account for approximately 71% of all CO2 emissions. U.S. per capita CO2 emissions are 17 metric tons annually, among the highest in the world, and nearly double the European average.
Despite broader acceptance by the public of the existence of climate change (70% according to a recent poll), the vast majority of us are not actively making cuts in our carbon emissions, and are instead relying on the government to solve climate change. Most households have little or no specific knowledge regarding how their lifestyle affects the environment, nor how they can make substantial emissions cuts without drastically impacting their lifestyle. Social pressure to reduce CO2 emissions is minimal. No one expects anyone else to drive an electric car, use mass transit, install solar panels or LED lights, or take other steps to significantly reduce one’s carbon footprint. No one judges even the most wasteful uses of energy.
The lack of interest in voluntary emissions reduction spans the political spectrum. Fossil fuel interests obviously prefer the status quo of an uninvolved public. The environmental community, which one would expect to push consumers towards “clean living”, instead advances a narrative in which the fossil fuel companies and “climate deniers” are the villains causing the climate crisis, and consumers are powerless victims relieved of responsibility aside from affirming that man-made climate change exists.
Ironically, consumers have the power to achieve enormous carbon emissions reductions with minimal effect on their lifestyles or budgets. Take gasoline, for example. Gasoline accounts for about 40% of household CO2 emissions. Even though electric and plug-in hybrid cars have reached rough cost and convenience parity with gasoline cars and can reduce car-related CO2 emissions by well over 50%, only about 0.6% of the 17 million new cars sold in America each year are electrified. For those who continue to drive gasoline-powered cars, it is possible to wring out substantial carbon reduction by turning off car engines when idling, making increased use of carpooling and mass transit, and otherwise looking for opportunities to drive less and cut gasoline consumption.
How can we shift to low-carbon choices?
A key first step is educating consumers about their emissions and contribution to climate change (and air pollution), and about practical steps that they can take to reduce it. Although we live in an era of frequent public awareness campaigns (drunk driving, breast cancer, domestic violence, smoking, etc.), there has not been a significant national public awareness campaign regarding energy and carbon emissions, even though climate change is frequently cited as the most pressing problem facing humanity. A widespread public campaign on buses, billboards, television and social media could support a cultural shift in fossil fuel consumption, as occurred with smoking in the 1990s.
Second, we need to start holding ourselves and others accountable for the choices we make. Emitting CO2 and other forms of air pollution into an oversaturated atmosphere is ultimately an anti-social act, and the awareness of this notion must gradually take hold in the public mind, just as awareness of the harms of second-hand smoke helped create new laws against smoking in public places and sharp declines in smoking rates.
Third, we need to increase the number of points where consumers receive information about carbon reduction and encouragement to reduce it. While many cities and large businesses have carbon reduction campaigns connected to their internal operations, few take into account the carbon emitted by their constituents or employees. Major employers and governmental entities should engage their employees and constituents to take responsibility for their emissions.
Involving the public more broadly and personally in the climate crisis can support more widespread adoption of key technologies such as electric cars and solar panels, thereby driving innovation and creating lower prices and new jobs. It will also encourage citizens to look for opportunities to reduce emissions in other aspects of their lives. For example, a municipal fleet manager who has traded his personal gas car for an electric car is much more likely to purchase electric cars for his city’s fleet. The political benefits of a mobilized public are also substantial–people that have taken steps to wring CO2 emissions from their lives are more likely to support carbon reduction legislation.
Positive change is possible, but we must be a part of that change by mobilizing ourselves, our communities, our leadership and our world.