It's the Emissions, Stupid

Sure, global warming is a challenge, but solutions are staring us right in the face

  • Paul Tolmé
  • Apr 01, 2005

WHEN LARRY KINNEY moved into a leaky 20-year-old house in Boulder, Colorado, he did more than unpack boxes, lay down rugs and arrange the furniture. He also slashed the home's energy use to minimize his expenses and impact on global warming.

A senior researcher for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, Kinney knew just what to do: First, he sealed and reinsulated the house, finding and curing air leaks. Then he opened an internal door and window at the top of a solar-heated space above the main house, so warm air would flow down into the home on sunny winter days. Inside the solar space, he installed a clothesline and a south-facing skylight that adds warmth on winter days and ventilation on hot summer nights. He installed dimmers on light switches that control incandescent bulbs and replaced some 20 incandescents with compact fluorescents. To an existing whole-house fan, he added controls that automatically turn it off when cooling isn't needed and an insulated shutter that seals the fan opening in winter.

Small steps perhaps, but the impact was dramatic. Several years and $3,500 later, Kinney and his wife have a home that costs just $50 a year for heating, cooling and hot water. And because most of their energy comes from the sun, they add little heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere.

As global temperatures continue to rise due to humanity's reliance on fossil fuels, Kinney exemplifies how some Americans are becoming part of the solution. By maximizing the efficiency of their homes and using renewable energy, consumers can help decrease the nation's unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels.

Of course, reversing the mounting effects of global warming also requires official action at both national and international levels. In the United States, "we need strong policies such as those included in the proposed Climate Stewardship Act," says NWF climate change program manager Jeremy Symons. Such policies would require power plants and factories to reduce emissions, raise fuel efficiency for automobiles and other motor vehicles, eliminate subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and invest in renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies (see "NWF Priority").

Energy Guzzlers 
The country has a lot of work to do. Together, U.S. citizens emit 21 tons of heat-trapping gases per capita--twice the amount of Western Europeans who enjoy the same standard of living--largely because of the energy burned in inefficient homes and gas-guzzling vehicles. Motor vehicles alone are responsible for nearly a quarter of the country's annual CO2 emissions. Though the United States has just 4 percent of the world's population, it is responsible for a quarter of all global carbon dioxide emissions. And greenhouse gases emitted today will linger in the atmosphere for decades.

Faced with such daunting challenges, people may feel helpless. "It's such a big problem that people say, 'Wow. It's impossible for me to make a change,'" says Stephen Saunders, president of the newly formed Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. "Untrue."

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, if every U.S. family replaced one regular incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent, the nation could decrease CO2 emissions by more than 90 billion pounds annually--equivalent to taking 7.5 million cars off the road. If every U.S. household used the most efficient appliances, the nation could save $15 billion in energy costs and eliminate 175 million tons of greenhouse gases, notes the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. "Every time we make a decision to buy a high-efficiency appliance, we're not just reducing our own energy use and saving money, we are sending a powerful signal to manufacturers that people want these products," says Harvey Sachs, director of buildings programs for the organization.

Smart Investments 
Energy-efficient products, such as those endorsed by the federal government-sponsored Energy Star program, cost more up front but deliver investment returns to rival the best stocks. Compact fluorescent bulbs, for example, cost about $4.50 versus 50 cents for a conventional bulb. But the long life and efficiency of compact fluorescents means they save $5 per bulb every year. Swap 10 bulbs, and the savings are $50 per year. Over the eight-year life of those bulbs, the savings would be $400. "It's obscene not to buy them," says Sam Rashkin, national director of EPA's Energy Star For Homes program, who calculates the rate of return on a compact fluorescent at 110 percent.

Similarly, an Energy Star clothes washer costs about $300 more than an inefficient model, but will save roughly $90 per year in electricity costs, or $800 over the 15-year life of the washer--a 15 percent annual rate of return. "These are investments," Rashkin says. "But the returns don't depend on whether the stock market is good or bad. They are guaranteed, because energy costs are only going to rise."

Demanding renewable energy is another way consumers can influence the market, reducing both their energy expenses and emissions of heat-trapping gases. Half of U.S. households have the option to sign up for green-pricing programs, for example, yet only 500,000 consumers do (see "Solutions: Green Pricing Programs," below). Still, renewable energy is gaining steam: Between 1995 and 2003, at least $124 billion was invested in installing new renewable energy facilities such as wind farms and solar collectors worldwide, including $24 billion in 2003, says researcher Eric Martinot, a fellow with the World Watch Institute. Within ten years, the renewable energy market is expected to reach $85 billion annually, according to Martinot's report, Global Renewable Energy Markets and Policies.

Blowing in the Wind 
Wind has the greatest potential. The price of wind power has dropped 40 percent since the 1980s and is now one of the cheapest energies to produce. In the United States, about $2 billion is spent annually ($9 billion worldwide) on building wind farms, which generate enough power to supply 1.6 million homes. Wind constitutes just 1 percent of the electric market in the United States, but the figure could easily grow to 6 percent by 2020, says the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

Denmark illustrates the technology's promise. In just over a decade, the country went from virtually no wind energy to supplying 20 percent of the country's needs today. "The really good news is that people can no longer hide behind the old argument that wind is expensive and will wreck the economy," says AWEA spokeswoman Christine Real de Azua. "Technologically and economically, converting to wind is feasible."

Solar power, while more expensive to produce than wind, is heating up as well. Global production of energy produced by solar panels in 2004 was about 700 megawatts--worth roughly $3.5 billion and up from 60 megawatts in 1996. In some places, photovoltaic panels are in such demand that there are waiting lists of eight months or more.

Utility Goes Green 
Among a handful of utilities leading the charge is Austin Energy, which serves 700,000 customers around the Texas capital. Thanks to its investments in West Texas wind farms, the company sells more wind power than any other in the country. While renewables constitute just 5 percent of the utility's power supply today, it plans to raise that figure to 20 percent by 2020. "The price of fossil fuels is going to continue to rise," says Roger Duncan, the company's deputy general manager, "so wind just makes good business sense."

Two decades ago, Austin Energy had planned to build a new coal-power plant, but Duncan--then a city councilor--helped implement a conservation plan that offset the need for more coal power. In essence, the company "built" a virtual power plant through efficiencies. In 2005, the company plans to spend $20 million on conservation. Looking forward, it would like to fill 15 percent of its energy needs through further efficiency measures. "It's cheaper to save a megawatt of energy through conservation than it is to build new power plants," says Duncan.

Likewise, it would be cheaper for the United States as a whole to reduce its reliance on oil than to continue importing crude from around the globe. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, eliminating oil imports entirely would pump $70 billion into the national economy. "Saving and substituting for oil costs less than buying it," says the group's CEO, Amory Lovins, who adds that these savings act like "a giant tax cut for the nation. It simply makes sense and makes money for all."

Refuting Skeptics
Indeed, contrary to critics who say that reducing dependence on fossil fuels would wreck the economy, investments in renewables and efficiencies would spur an economic revolution similar to the birth of the Internet and high-tech boom of the past two decades, says economist Michelle Manion of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We have done a good job refuting the science skeptics" who dismiss the reality of global warming, she says. "Now we need to do a better job refuting the economic skeptics."

Supporting that goal, farsighted individuals like Larry Kinney provide examples of economic benefits that accrue from lowering fossil fuel use. Another Colorado resident, Will Toor, is also doing his part. After moving into a new home in 2004, the Boulder County commissioner replaced incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents; sold the old power-hogging appliances and bought an energy-efficient refrigerator, dishwasher and washing machine; replaced the dryer with a clothesline; and signed up for a green-pricing program with his electric company, which supplies 100 percent wind power for an extra $9 a month. The result: His family's monthly electricity use dropped by two-thirds from the previous owners.

Toor, who walks, rides the bus or bikes to work, is proud to be part of the solution. Though he knows he will save money over the long term, he's never bothered to crunch the numbers. Rather, Toor minimized his greenhouse gas emissions because doing so is morally sound. "It's all part of teaching our children to tread lightly on the Earth," he says. "Our children aren't responsible for global warming, but they are the ones who will have to grapple with our mistakes."

Paul Tolmé powers his Colorado home with 100 percent wind power purchased through his utility's green-pricing program.

Solutions: Building Green
The energy consumed in the average U.S. home produces nearly 10,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Office buildings, which efficiency experts compare to a fleet of SUVs across the nation's skyline, are also energy guzzlers. But thanks to a green building push, new homes and buildings are in for an energy conservation makeover.

Last fall, San Francisco became the ninth city to adopt a Green Building Ordinance that requires all new building construction projects and additions to be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, or LEED. Buildings are rated as Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum, depending on whether they are "pale" or "dark" green.

The headquarters of the municipal water agency for Chino, California, exemplifies dark-green construction. The building includes rooftop solar panels that provide a quarter of the building's energy. A majority of the construction materials were made locally, reducing the "embedded energy" expended in their manufacture and transport. Three-quarters of the workspaces use natural light. To discourage car commuting, employees have bike lockers, showers and charging stations for electric vehicles, as well as a carpool program and high-mileage alternative fuel vehicles for day trips.

As for homes, an Energy Star program for homes--sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)--already labels as energy efficient both new and existing houses that meet the agencies' specific criteria. See In addition, this year a pilot LEED program, to be followed in 2006 by a permanent program, "will be the first step toward ramping up the number of energy efficient homes on a national basis," says Ann Edminster, cochairwoman of the committee devising the standards. Surveys show that Americans are clamoring for efficient homes, which have a higher resale value. "This is a big market opportunity," Edminster says. "We hope to get to the point where green homes are the rule rather than the exception." See

Solutions: Green Pricing Programs
Half of all U.S. electricity consumers could buy renewable energy from their utilities if they chose to spend a little extra money. But only half a million do. The problem is that most consumers don't even know the option is available. "It's difficult to get the word out," says Lori Bird of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "Even the programs that have been around for a while struggle with awareness." More than 500 utilities in 34 states offer green pricing programs. For information, see or You can also support clean energy through NWF's "Green Tag Club." By joining the club, you'll prevent the annual release of tons of the emissions that cause global warming. See

Solutions: Turn Your Home Into A Power Plant
In the past, only off-the-grid rural residents put up solar panels or wind turbines. But thanks to new technology, state rebate programs and more favorable laws, homeowners can now feed power into the grid and watch their electricity bills shrink.

For wind power options, check out Southwest Windpower's Whisper Link system, which includes a turbine with a nine-foot blade. With a 30- to 50-foot tower, the system costs about $7,000 installed. (Make sure local zoning laws allow the turbines.) In places with average winds of 12 miles per hour such as the Midwest, or in areas with high electricity costs such as Southern California, the system will pay for itself in as little as three years with rebates, according to vice president Andy Kruse. "These are ideal for homeowners with half an acre or more." See For solar, BP Solar is the world's largest producer of the technology, with more than 30 years of experience. Its blue, dark-framed solar modules are backed by a 25-year warranty. See Unfortunately, some states do not have "net metering" laws that require utilities to buy back home-generated power for the same price the utilities sell it, which discourages residential wind and solar power generation.

Solutions: States and Communities Take Action 
When Oregon set limits on CO2 emissions from new power plants in 1997, the world paid little notice. But Oregon's bold action began one of the most hopeful trends in climate protection--state and local action. While the federal government drags its feet, state and community officials are implementing Climate Action Plans, pledging to meet the goals of the Kyoto Protocol by cutting emissions of greenhouse gasses.

Last September, for example, New York's Public Service Commission adopted a rule that requires 25 percent of the state's electricity to come from renewable resources by 2013. The move is expected to jump-start efforts to generate wind, solar and tidal power, and also capture landfill gas and increase the use of biomass (wood chips and other plant products). Already, 18 states have adopted "Renewable Portfolio Standards" that require utilities to add renewables to their transmission grids. If all 50 states adopted similar standards, renewable energy would boom.

Hoping to turn their blustery and sunny states into the Saudi Arabia of wind and solar power, the Western Governors' Association in 2004 approved a resolution to increase renewable energy production, which would require 30,000 megawatts of clean energy to be produced by 2015 and encourage energy efficiency gains of 20 percent by 2020. Meanwhile, California's decision to force automakers to cut CO2 emissions from cars and trucks could reshape the auto industry. To meet California's demands, car makers likely will have to improve fuel efficiency across their fleets if they want to sell vehicles in the state--one of the world's largest markets for automobiles.

Frustrated by federal inaction, cities and towns are tackling global warming as well. Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Austin and Minneapolis are among large cities that have implemented programs to cut emissions, as have Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado, Burlington, Vermont, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New Haven, Connecticut. Chicago and Los Angeles have adopted Climate Protection Programs. San Francisco plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 2.5 million tons by increasing mass transit and hybrid vehicles, implementing energy conservation measures, requiring green building methods and installing solar power collectors on buildings and homes. Seattle's municipally owned electric utility has adopted a climate-neutral program through which it invests in emissions reductions programs around the world to offset its own CO2 output.

In all, more than 150 communities across the country and 600 worldwide have joined the Cities for Climate Protection program ( "At first we had to solicit communities," says director Abby Young. "Now we have cities coming to us. Until we get some leadership at the federal level, communities and states must keep the pressure on."

Solutions: Reduce Your Own Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Reducing your family's heat-trapping emissions does not mean giving up modern conveniences--it just means making smart choices and using energy efficient products. Here are ten easy steps suggested by the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Pick the right car -- When you buy your next car, look for the one with the best fuel economy in its class or consider new technologies like hybrid engines. Each gallon of gas you use releases 25 pounds of heat-trapping CO2.
Choose clean power -- Power plants are the single largest source of heat-trapping gases in the United States, but in some states you can switch to utilities that provide 50 to 100 percent renewable energy. See
Look for Energy Star -- When it's time to replace appliances like refrigerators, furnaces, air conditioners and water heaters, ask for products with the Energy Star label, which use less electricity than traditional appliances.
Unplug a freezer -- Unplugging just one rarely used refrigerator or freezer can reduce a typical family's CO2 emissions by nearly 10 percent.
Get a home energy audit -- Many utilities offer free audits, which may reveal simple ways to cut emissions--sealing and insulating heating or cooling ducts, for example.
Choose efficient lighting -- If every U.S. family replaced one regular incandescent bulb with an efficient compact fluorescent, we could decrease emissions by more than 90 billion pounds annually--equivalent to taking 7.5 million cars off the road.
Think before you drive -- If you own more than one vehicle, use the less fuel efficient one only when you can fill it with passengers. If possible, join a carpool, bike or take mass transit.
Buy good wood -- Buy certified wood to support sustainably managed forests, which can store carbon more effectively. See and
Plant a tree -- In addition to storing carbon, trees in urban areas and near residences provide summer shade, reducing energy bills, fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. See "Backyard Habitat."
Let policymakers know you care about global warming -- Both elected officials and business leaders need to hear from concerned citizens like you.
What's Your Role in Global Warming?

Americans make many choices every day that increase their collective output of carbon dioxide, the planet's leading climate-changing gas. Take the following quiz to see how you rank as a carbon dioxide emitter on the climate-change scale.

By Don Hinrichsen

Do you use energy-efficient light bulbs, such as compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) throughout your home or apartment?

If yes, add 1 point to the emission meter
If no, add 4 points to the emission meter

Fact: Where electricity is produced from coal-fired power plants, each CFL used prevents 1,300 pounds of carbon dioxide and 20 pounds of sulfur dioxide from being spewed into the atmosphere every year.

Do you turn off lights when not using them?

If yes, add 1 point to the emission meter
If no, add 3 points to the emission meter

Do you buy and install appliances, such as refrigerators, freezers, washers and dryers or dishwashers, that bear the federal Energy Star stamp designating them as the most energy efficient products in their class?

If yes, add 2 points to the emission meter
If no, add 4 points to the emission meter

Fact: Home appliances account for 30 percent of electricity use in industrial countries and contribute 12 percent of their total greenhouse gas emissions.

Where does your electricity come from? If you don't know, you can find out by going to and clicking on "Your Electricity Choices," or by calling your local electricity supplier.

coal-fired plant: add 6 points
oil-fired plant: add 5 points
gas-fired plant: add 4 points
garbage: add 3 points
nuclear: add 2 points
low impact hydro: add 1 point
wind power: add 0 points
solar (panels and PV): add 0 points
geothermal: add 1 point
biomass: add 1 point
combination of green power: add 1 point
Does your computer wear an Energy Star sticker?

If yes, add 2 points to the emission meter
If no, add 4 points to the emission meter
I have no computer, add 0 points

Fact: Buying green power (renewable energy) as the sole power source for the average U.S. home for 1 year prevents carbon dioxide from being emitted; it is equivalent to planting two acres of trees, removing a car from the road or not driving 12,000 miles.

What kind of car/truck do you drive?

compact car with highest fuel efficiency standards: add 2 points
SUV: add 5 points
light truck: add 6 points
full-sized car meeting minimum efficiency standards: add 3 points
hybrid electric car: add 1 point
fuel cell or hydrogen car: add 1 point
I don't own a vehicle: add 0 points
Fact: Cars and light trucks in the United States account for 40 percent of the nation's oil use and contribute as much to climate change as the entire Japanese economy.

What kind of clothes do you usually wear?

all cotton: add 1 point
cotton/polyester blend: add 3 points
wool: add 0 points
Fact: The production process for a cotton T-shirt blended with polyester uses petrochemicals and releases roughly 10 times the shirt's weight in carbon dioxide.

How Do You Stack Up? 
The lower the emission meter, the more energy efficient and environmentally sound your lifestyle and consumer choices are.

If your emission meter is under 12 points, congratulations, you are a genuine energy saver and carbon-emission eliminator!

If your emission meter is between 13 and 17 points, you are on your way to being a genuine energy conservationist and emission eliminator.

If your emission meter is between 18 and 25, you are an average consumer and carbon emitter.

If your emission meter is over 25, you are a human smokestack! Cut back on your energy use.

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