Reductions in US GHG emissions through household actions

Amongst discussions of US emissions regulation and the viability of individual action as a response to the climate problem, a recent study caught my eye which is both relevant and encouraging.

Deitz et al. have an open access paper in PNAS entitled Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce U.S. carbon emissions. They employ a conceptual model developed by Pacala and Socolow called stabilization wedges, and examine what reductions can be achieved through relatively simple and low-cost changes in US household behavior.

They break these changes into five broad categories:

W (home weatherization and upgrades of heating and cooling equipment); E (more efficient vehicles and nonheating and cooling home equipment); M (equipment maintenance); A (equipment adjustments), and D (daily use behaviors).

Click to embiggen

These actions represent gains in efficiency and/or reduced energy consumption (vs. the adoption of supplemental solar or wind energy, for example).  These are arguably the lowest hanging fruit of all in terms of emissions cuts as they not only reduce GHGs, but end up saving the consumer money in the long term as well. Or as Amory Lovins has put it, energy efficiency is “better than a free lunch, it’s a lunch you get paid to eat”.

All said, these reductions would result in a yearly carbon savings of 123,000,000 metric tons and could account for up to 3 wedges (or as much as 44%) of apportioned US emissions reductions over ten years, a stunning result. In contrast to stunt low-GHG lifestyles, a campaign to provide government incentives and alter social attitudes towards such behavioral changes could be tremendously effective- achieving (as Deitz et al. point out) more of a GHG savings than eliminating all emissions from “the petroleum refining, iron and steel, and aluminum industries, each of which is among the largest emitters in the industrial sector.”

[Note: See Deitz’s response below.] Although it could conceivably have been included in such an evaluation, I was unsurprised to see discussions of relatively small changes in diet and their respective emissions impact (among other benefits) left out- I would wager this remains too politically unpopular a topic to seriously discuss at a US-wide policy level, even as the topic is being discussed abroad [UPDATE: who could have possibly foreseen such a reaction?].

[UPDATE: I see Dot Earth covered this one as well. Anyone confused by their numbers vs. mine (i.e. 8% vs. 44%), note that they’re describing overall change to emissions while I was talking about percentage of emissions reductions goal.]

[LATE UPDATE: Lead author Tom Deitz has responded in the comments, noting that their paper is also available here and explains that the diet issue was avoided not for political reasons but because the necessary lifecycle accounting was beyond the scope of their study.]


5 responses to “Reductions in US GHG emissions through household actions

  1. Interesting. Although I try fairly aggressively to minimize my own “carbon footprint” as a ethical matter, I didn’t dispute the fatalistic position that individual actions won’t have much impact…

    Looks like another Denialist talking point discredited!

  2. The paper is online at

    We didn’t do diet/food not because of political concerns or because we think it unimportant but because the emissions are indirect and thus rely on life cycle analysis and that was more than we could take on on this paper.

  3. I’m trying to remain optimistic about this, but when the recent poll done by the Pew foundation shows that despite all the scientific talk and education, only 35% of Americans believe that people have anything to do with global warming — if it exists, I find my optimism seriously challenged. Yes, the converted will cut their carbon footprint, eat less meat or hang out their clothes to dry on a line. But what about the majority?

    In the Woodlands, a Houston suburb where I lived for 12 years, it’s illegal to hang out your clothing on the line. Only the poor so that. It’ll be a while before they change that law.

    The issue most Americans have with climate change as presented by climate scientists or Al Gore is that it attacks the American Dream — to live in the suburbs, drive the car you want how much you want, buy what you want. No one gives up on a dream until he or she is forced to do it, by rising waters, starvation or whatever. Denialists tell the people what they want to hear which is why they are successful Much more palatable than lifestyle changes are geo-engineering projects such as spraying sulphur dioxide into the Stratosphere to keep the Earth cool. I suspect that within ten years geo-engineering will be as popular as liposuction.

  4. This post is really a help for my household actions. very informative post!

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