Welcome to Burning Questions, a series where Earther answers the most common asks we get on how to address climate change. Many people want to do something, anything to help address the climate crisis. We answer your questions about how to help change your life—and the systems that will save us.
If you want to clean up the planet, there’s no better place to start than in your own home. Roughly 38% of all carbon pollution is tied to buildings.
Bad news, yes. But the bright side is, there is no shortage of tactics to clean up those emissions and doing so will save us money and make our homes more comfortable places to live. There are two big buckets to draw from when it comes to reducing how much buildings pollute: improving efficiency and electrifying everything. An increasing number of states and cities are making it easier to do both those things, trade unions are hopping on board, and some utilities are even coming around to the idea that yes, it’s a good business decision to not burn down the planet.
If you want to make the biggest dent in your home energy bills, the answer is efficiency. It might not be as exciting as, say, putting a wind turbine in your backyard or a wall of batteries in your apartment building’s basement. But improving how efficiently homes use electricity and resources is crucial right now given our continued reliance on fossil fuels.
“Energy efficiency is more invisible than some of the other solutions, but it really is crucial for decarbonization,” said Rachel Gold, the head of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s utilities program. She pointed to a recent International Energy Agency report on how we could limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a goal laid out in the Paris Agreement. While everyone—including this very outlet—made hay out of the need to end oil and gas exploration and renewable energy ramp up, the report also contains a message on energy efficiency: The world must do energy efficiency retrofits at “three times the average of the last two decades.”
ACEEE’s own research has found upgrading water heaters and furnaces to more efficient versions offers major carbon cuts. So, too, can adding insulation and plugging leaks where air can seep in or out. Doing so comes with added comfort by cutting down on drafty spots.
Those are relatively costly upgrades for a homeowner and require professional installers. But even smaller actions can add up, like more efficient showerheads. Yes, even the much-mocked changing your lightbulbs to LED bulbs is among those actions. In fact, ACEEE’s recommendations for improving energy efficiency standards includes light bulbs near the top of that list along with the aforementioned big-ticket items.
“Choices that you can make in your home really do matter,” Gold said, “and matter not just for yourself, but also because when you make efficient choices in your home and then talk about it with your neighbors and your friends, it really does influence them.”
Other less costly upgrades include things like smart thermostats that can further help with efficiency, though those can come with security and privacy concerns. In Texas, utilities raised some residents’ smart thermostats during a heat wave to conserve electricity, so if you go that route, read the fine print. But these devices and other appliances that can connect to the internet and stay abreast of electricity rates could provide savings while using less energy.
“There’s all sorts of cool stuff that we can bring into that picture like flexible demands [where] your water heater is going to know that it’s windy in the middle of the night and use that time to heat up the water so that it’s ready to go when you want to take a shower in the morning,” said Mike Henchen, a principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute who’s working on building decarbonization.
It’s exceeding strange that we keep poison detectors in our homes to ensure our appliances don’t kill us. Carbon monoxide is the most immediate public health danger of gas-powered stoves, water heaters, furnaces, and other appliances. But those appliances are also frying the planet by emitting carbon dioxide and methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas. That’s why we can’t just improve-efficiency our way out of cleaning up our homes.
“[It’s] yes and,” Henchen said. “Whatever energy we’re still going to use—which is still going to be a lot—we need to understand how that energy is being produced.”
Getting natural gas out of homes by installing a heat pump that efficiently handles heating, cooling, and water heating, is a surefire way to reduce your household’s carbon footprint, save money, and also not risk death by explosion or carbon monoxide poisoning. (Induction stoves are a good option, too.) These can be expensive upgrades upfront, though they’ll save money in the long run. A growing number of states and utilities offer rebate programs and incentives to install heat pumps, though, which can help bring that cost down.
Even those rebate programs aren’t enough to bring down costs or make more comfortable, decarbonized homes available to all. The programs there are for low-income residents—notably, the incredibly acronymed Weather Assistance Program (WAP)—are underfunded and have long waiting lists. Henchen pointed to a report by the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative that shows only 35,000 households get weatherized a year through the program while there are 40 million that qualify.
Remember, we need to triple the rate of efficiency upgrades to meet the Paris Agreement target. That means expanding access to efficiency and electrification for all, particularly since economically disadvantaged households spend quadruple the amount of their income on utility bills as well-off ones.
So, by all means, install your heat pump and swap in your LED lightbulbs. But, as Henchen noted, “there’s a big need for public investment and housing upgrades.” For WAP alone, the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative calls for $423 billion in sustained funding for the program. That would help meet people’s needs, create jobs, and bring costs down. So, too, would proposals such as a Green New Deal for Public Housing that would address the $70 billion backlog in repairs. Both Gold and Henchen also mentioned local legislation with requirements for landlords to improve efficiency that would benefit the third of us who rent our homes or apartments.
If you don’t want to be the only one enjoying a carbon-free house, then pick one of those fights—or find another since there’s no shortage. And don’t forget to talk with your neighbors, friends, and family while you’re at it.