You can fight climate change, starting right now

Eat less beef. Ride the bus. Turn down the thermostat. For Earth Day, we bring you ideas on how to do your part and reduce your carbon footprint.

WWith a problem as vast as climate change, it's hard to know how to start. Individual action can seem so insignificant compared with the scale of global greenhouse gas emissions that it's difficult to believe they help. But they already have.

The technology, the research and, increasingly, the money have become available for people and businesses to make significant reductions in the amount of carbon dioxide they are sending into the atmosphere. Many want to know where they can do the most good. Should I change my diet? Should I get an EV? Is it better to get solar panels or replace my gas-burning furnace?

The answers to those questions will depend on everyone's circumstances. Apartment dwellers can't put in a new furnace, obviously. But I did my best to put a number on the relative climate benefits of the most common (and some less common) things that people can do.

This isn't a precise science, but here's how I did it. These estimates are pulled from studies from industry experts and based on emissions calculators and tools from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United Nations. They're based on what a typical Minnesota household, driver and grocery shopper could expect to cut. Some of the calculators get into granular detail and are worth diving into if you want to see how the specifics work for you. The EPA will count out the number of pounds of greenhouse gases your furnace emits if you tell it how much CenterPoint charged you in your last billing cycle. The U.S. Department of Energy can tell you the life-cycle emissions of the make and model of most cars. If you want to know the carbon cost of everyday actions — up to and including how many pounds of emissions you would save by riding a bike 5 miles rather than the typical British car if you ever find yourself on the streets of London — the U.N. has an app for you.

The calculators have some surprising and useful tips both large and small. One of the best? Delete spam emails. Emails you may never open or read are still stored in your inbox and in the cloud. That storage takes energy, energy that produces 1 pound of emissions for every 1,515 unread emails, to be exact. I had 12,467 unopened emails in my inbox at the time of writing, emitting 8 pounds of carbon a year.

While there is no definitive emissions total you should try to cut, keep this nice round number in mind: 15,000. Over the next six years, the United States needs to cut the emissions per capita it produced in 2005 by 52% to do its share to keep global temperatures at a level that will avoid some of the worst effects of a warming planet. That comes out to a reduction of about 15,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per person.

It is not the sole responsibility of individuals to cut those emissions — they include what's required of businesses, industries and governments. I include it to give a sense of the scale. And because some of you might be surprised to learn you've already done it or are well on your way.

So where to start?

The vast majority of greenhouse gases in the U.S. come from three places: power plants, cars and farms. So carbon cutters should reconsider the power they use, the way they get around and the food they eat. These numbers are all annual totals.


Switch to a heat pump: Saves 4,000 to 8,000 lbs.

The largest single way some Minnesota homeowners can reduce their footprint is by replacing their propane system or gas furnace with an air source heat pump. This has the widest range of potential emission cuts because it depends on many factors, including what type of fuel is being replaced and how efficient the heat pump is. The Minnesota nonprofit Center for Energy and Environment has created a tool for homeowners to get a more precise estimate based on their individual situation.

Heat pumps run on electricity, and the state's electrical grid has become far cleaner than burning propane or methane gas. And it is only getting cleaner. Even replacing some of the most efficient gas furnaces on the market could conservatively be expected to cut 20% to 40% of your heating emissions, said Josh Quinnell, a senior research at the center.

Install a better gas furnace: Saves 4,000 lbs.

If a heat pump isn't for you, major savings can still be found by replacing a bottom-tier gas furnace with a newer highly efficient one. That carbon savings comes from swapping the lowest rated legal gas furnace (80% efficiency) with a 95% efficiency model.

Install solar panels: Saves 6,000 lbs.

A standard rooftop solar array could be expected to produce up to 75% of the energy that home uses all year. It's not a constant supply. Sometimes the panels will produce more electricity than the home can handle, so it gets metered out and sent to the grid at large. Other times the home will need to draw electricity from the utility. Solar panels cut the average electricity bill enough that they pay for themselves in Minnesota after about 13 years.

Air dry laundry twice a week instead of using a dryer: Saves 300 lbs.


Switch to an electric vehicle: Saves 7,000 lbs.

The average driver in Minnesota gets 22.2 miles per gallon and drives 31 miles a day, according to the EPA. That total savings factors in the life-cycle costs of mining the raw materials, building a battery and using Minneapolis' electric grid to charge up one of the most popular models of electric vehicle on the road today.

Drive a hybrid plug-in vehicle: Saves 5,000 lbs.

That's how much the average driver could expect to save with a relatively common Ford plug-in hybrid. Hybrids that are plugged in overnight typically get enough electrical range to get a person to work and back. For longer trips the car switches over to gasoline.

Take the bus: Saves 4,800 lbs.

For most people, riding transit to and from work is the cheapest way to make a steep cut in their emissions. If a rider used a bus for all travel and not just their commute, the savings would climb to about 7,000 lbs. a year.

Ride a bike instead of driving for a 5-mile round trip once a week: Saves 230 lbs.


Eat pork and chicken instead of beef: Saves 3,400 lbs.

As a native Wisconsinite, I haven't yet met a problem I couldn't eat my way out of. And so if I have to eat more chicken wings and ham for the planet, I am prepared to do it. Much of the talk about food consumption is centered on the benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet. Those diets can save quite a lot of carbon emissions. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the average vegetarian diet saves about 4,000 pounds of emissions a year compared with the average meat-eater's.

Those savings are mainly due to beef. It takes an astonishing 57 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions to raise 1,000 calories worth of cattle. But it costs just over 11 pounds of emissions to get 1,000 calories of food out of pigs and chicken. It takes 7 pounds of emissions to grow that many calories of veggies, and 3 pounds to make that much tofu. The average American eats 56.2 pounds of beef a year. Replacing that beef with pork and chicken would drop emissions from 4,000 pounds a year to about 600.

Choose chicken over beef one time: Saves 38 lbs.

This is one of the best single decisions a person can make. The average American eats about 2,500 calories a day — or 833 calories a meal, according to the CDC. It takes 48 pounds of greenhouse gases to raise one meal's worth of beef. For that much chicken, it takes 10 pounds of emissions. To compare, taking the bus to and from work saves half of that — about 17 pounds of emissions a day.

The best food for cutting greenhouse gases: Fresh-baked bread, thick pasta and nuts

It takes just 1 pound of emissions to grow and bake 1,000 calories of bread. That's three times better than fruit, seven times better than vegetables and 10 times better than pork and chicken. Nuts are even better, and are almost free, from a carbon perspective. It takes just 0.22 pounds of emissions for 1,000 calories of tree nuts.