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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Let's All Lower Our Carbon Footprint

Oct 25, 2012 09:06AM ● By Megy Karydes

Brenda Ekwurzel

Determining the best actions to take to lead a greener life can be a daunting task. Is driving a hybrid car better for the environment? Should you stress about turning off the lights? Does what we eat matter? The answers may be surprising.

“After two years of research, we learned that when it comes to reducing your carbon emissions, what matters most, in order of importance, is what and how you drive, the energy you use at home and what food you eat,” says Brenda Ekwurzel, co-author of Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, and a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Most of the carbon reduction strategies presented in the book will also help readers save money and live healthier lifestyles.”

More than a quarter of American carbon emissions come from transportation, and the lion’s share of those are from driving, according to research cited in the book. So buying a hybrid would make the most sense, because in theory, that would provide the driver with better fuel economy. Or would it?

Ekwurzel agrees that upgrading from a 20 mpg car to a 40 mpg car will reduce annual carbon emissions by almost four tons and save the driver about $18,000 in gas over the lifetime of the car. However, not all hybrids are the same. “It is important to dig into the reports and separate the cars that truly get further down the road on a gallon of fuel from the ‘faux hybrids’ out there,” she says.

With some “hybrid” models, motorists could still end up with a gas-guzzler. That’s because some automakers put the hybrid label on cars that use hybrid technology to boost power instead of cutting fuel use, according to the authors’ research. “A good place to start is the easy-to-use website, where all hybrids and electric cars are compared,” recommends Ekwurzel.

Even if we’re not in a position to replace a car in the near future, most of us are able to better manage our energy use at home, the second-highest energy hog. “Among the least expensive and most cost-effective steps you can take [to reduce your carbon footprint] is to install a programmable thermostat if you do not already have one, even if you rent,” says Ekwurzel. The trick isn’t to just install it, but to learn how to program it, too, because surveys show that most people that have the devices don’t bother to program them to stop heating or cooling their home when they are away, she adds.

“I rented a place where I paid a lot for the heating and cooling costs given the poor insulation,” says Ekwurzel. “To save money, I asked if I could install a programmable thermostat, and the landlord did not object. My electric bill had a noticeable drop after that one change.”

For added cost savings, Peoples Gas ( and North Shore Gas ( are doubling their rebates for all qualifying boilers, boiler reset Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Livingcontrols, furnaces and water heaters for residences through the end of November. Check their websites for details about which products qualify and how to apply for the rebates.

Another myth the author tries to dispel in the book is that turning off the lights really matters. “While turning off the lights is always a good way to conserve energy, it pales in comparison to replacing incandescent bulbs with today’s latest efficient compact fluorescents and LED light bulbs,” says Ekwurzel. “In fact, energy-efficient bulbs have gotten so good, you’d have to shut off an incandescent bulb entirely for three out of every four days to achieve savings comparable to LEDs.”

Experts at ComEd ( agree. On their website, which lists several tips to help customers reduce their home energy use and costs, managing lighting is among them. According to ComEd, ENERGY STAR-qualified CFLs use about 75 percent less electricity than standard lighting, which means lower electric bills.

The final category by which we can make the largest dent relates to our food choices. But rather than worrying how food made it to our home, Ekwurzel encourages us to consider what is on the plate. If you want to cut global warming emissions, eat less meat, especially red meat. According to Ekwurzel, a pound of red meat creates the same emissions as 18 pounds of pasta. The take-away is that, “Eating a higher proportion of your calories from fruits, vegetables and grains is not only better for your health, it also helps slow climate change,” she says.

The bottom line is, “It is not too late to really make a difference for those suffering the consequences of climate change, whether it is losing their home to coastal flooding or enduring evacuations when extreme heat and drought make conditions ripe for wildfires to get out of control,” she says. The most important action we can take is to take action now.

Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living is available online and at selected national plus local, independent booksellers.

Megy Karydes is a professional writer who loves to hear a good story. Find her at