If you think you have nothing to do with global warming, think again. From the car you drive to the house you live in, nearly everything you do contributes to your "carbon footprint" -- your impact on the environment.
"Everything we do generates some kind of environmental impact," said Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resource Defense Counsel.
Making energy creates carbon dioxide, which scientists say is the leading cause of global warming. But they also agree that if you know how much energy you're using -- or the size of your carbon footprint -- you can take steps to reduce it. "We are talking about the carbon emissions related to the products you use and the activities you engage in," Hershkowitz said.
Calculating Your Carbon Footprint
The average American household produces over 35,000 pounds of carbon dioxide each year. Added together, that's 20 percent of the greenhouse gases our entire country produces.
After Kristen Joy-Flanagan and Kevin Flanagan heard that statistic, they decided they wanted to reduce their share of greenhouse gases. They set out to calculate their family's carbon footprint -- no easy task in a household of six kids.
They went to the EPA Web site to add up their heating and electric bills along with the amount of gas their cars use and how many miles they drive. "We're a large family so I figured we would probably have a pretty large footprint," Joy-Flanagan said.
Between three cars, the Flanagans used over 1,100 gallons of gas and drove over 20,000 miles last year. That created 20,000 pounds of carbon emissions.
The household's consumption of almost 16,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year produced 25,000 pounds of carbon. Heating fuel added up to $2,500 for the year, producing about 20,000 pounds of carbon.
The Flanagans subtracted some credits for recycling and finally found out the size of their carbon footprint -- 60,000 pounds, considerably higher than the national average.
Making Your Footprint Smaller
How to turn a supersize footprint into a smaller one? Enter Hershkowitz. He visited the Flanagans to help them devise strategies to reduce their carbon emissions.
Cars, he said, were their biggest problem. "The automobile contributes more carbon emissions than everything else in your home combined." By combining trips, keeping tires inflated and investing in a hybrid, the Flanagans can cut down on their gas consumption and yearly mileage.
Next, Hershkowitz took a look at the family's heating and cooling systems. "The two biggest causes of carbon emissions from your house are your boiler and your air conditioner -- they give off 65 percent of all carbon emissions," he said. Maintaining the boiler and reducing AC use can help cut the carbon and reduce the size of bills.
In the kitchen, Hershkowitz found a relatively new refrigerator from 2003. He cautioned that older appliances are often energy-hungry and said any refrigerator over 10 years old should be replaced. A new one will pay for itself in efficiency in just a few years.
Around the house, Hershkowitz found lamps that could benefit from energy-efficient lights. "The next big cause of carbon emissions in your house is your lighting," said Hershkowitz. "Replacing light bulbs with CFLs will save you money and reduce your carbon emissions."
For the Flanagans, calculating their carbon footprint and learning how to reduce it was invaluable. "You realize that every little thing you do makes a difference," Joy-Flanagan said.