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Life Kit: Green Living


This month, world leaders gathered to discuss climate change and reducing carbon emissions around the world, which may prompt some people to ask, what can I do about such a giant problem? In this encore presentation, NPR's Life Kit and science correspondent Dan Charles has tips on how you can get started at home.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Even a house has a carbon footprint. The furnace, the water heater, the lights and the air conditioner, they all consume energy, and most of that energy still comes from burning coal or gas. Donnel Baird, who's the CEO of an energy company called BlocPower, says buildings in the U.S., homes and offices, they account for 30% of the whole country's greenhouse gas emissions.

DONNEL BAIRD: If you want to do something about climate change, your home is among the most important places to look.

CHARLES: Whether you live in a tiny apartment or a big old house, here are three steps toward cutting that carbon. Step 1 - you can start small. This is according to Rohini Srivastava, a senior researcher with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

ROHINI SRIVASTAVA: I would start off with heating and cooling my space smartly. Regardless if you're a homeowner or a renter, you still have control over the thermostat.

CHARLES: So you can experiment with easing off on the air conditioning and the heating, she says. Open the windows in summer and see what natural ventilation can do. In winter, turn down the thermostat at night and use an extra blanket instead. But also, she says, when you are heating or cooling your home, don't let that comfortable air just leave. Seal up those cracks and holes.

SRIVASTAVA: Start looking at your windows, doors. Is your house leaking? You know, sometimes if you go near a door, there's a draft coming.

CHARLES: Also, replace old-style lightbulbs with LEDs. Put televisions and other electronics on a power strip so you can switch them off at night. All those things can cut your energy use by 10 or 20%. Now, Step 2 - take a look at those heating and cooling systems. Donnel Baird, the CEO of BlocPower, says if they're old, they're probably inefficient.

BAIRD: You want to move those systems from fossil fuel equipment to 100% electric. You want to turn your building into a Tesla.

CHARLES: See; electricity is getting cleaner. The plan is more and more of it will come from zero-carbon sources like solar and wind and hydroelectric dams or nuclear. In fact, in a lot of states, you can sign up right now with companies that buy 100% clean electricity and add it to the grid for you to use. Now, if you're renting or in a condo, you may not have the power to replace the furnace or the water heater in your building. But Donnel Baird says try to talk to your landlord or your property manager. Try to get some answers.

BAIRD: Are they saving you enough money by using modern green energy technologies that can reduce your monthly utility bill?

CHARLES: If you have the power to make a change, you may end up looking at something called an electric heat pump. Heat pumps handle heating and cooling. They can replace a gas furnace and an air conditioner. There are heat pump water heaters, too. Finally, Step 3 - check out whether you can generate your own clean power with solar panels on your roof.

BAIRD: Solar installation is very, very sophisticated and really straightforward, and so it's one of the simpler things you can do.

CHARLES: It can be pricey, though. Some states subsidize the cost and make it affordable; some don't. If it doesn't work for you, if your roof's facing the wrong way or you're underneath a big tree, see if you can buy a share in a solar project nearby. That's called community solar. You might even end up generating more energy than your house consumes. You could make that carbon footprint disappear.

Dan Charles, NPR News.


Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.