Individuals Matter in the Climate Change Fight

October is Energy Awareness Month, an opportunity to learn about advances in energy production and use, and to remind ourselves how ordinary people everywhere can help to slow the pace of climate change by saving energy.

Experts at The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) write that dramatically scaling up energy efficiency policies and programs that are already in place could boost U.S. energy savings to 50% by 2050. The resulting reduction in emissions would bring the country halfway to its 2050 climate goal—and save $700 billion.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions Reductions Relative to Baseline Energy-Related Emissions

Personal actions to reduce energy consumption not only contribute directly to achieving those savings, they can be contagious. A recent study found that leaders who commit to real sacrifices to save energy, such as dramatically reducing or eliminating air travel, can persuade others to take similar actions. This social influence effect comes atop the direct benefits of reducing the individuals’ carbon footprint and saving money.

The consequences of climate change—more devastating hurricanes, frequent record-breaking floods, and exceptionally voracious wildfires—have helped more Americans appreciate the peril that global warming presents to them personally as well as to the planet generally.

In a recent Pew poll, 60% of Americans said they believe that climate change will harm them directly. Such concern may motivate more people to reduce carbon emissions and conserve energy, even if their actions seem small compared to the enormity of the problem.

So, what can you do? How can one person make a difference?

ACEEE experts cite several opportunities for saving energy, from the car you drive to the appliances you use.

Making your next car an electric automobile is a good start. By increasing electric vehicles sales to 80% of the market for new cars and light trucks, the United States would slash CO2 emissions from vehicles by 50% in 2050. Persuading people to drive less by making short trips on foot or bicycle could decrease emissions by another 30%.

Making existing homes more energy efficient—by, for example, switching from oil, propane, and natural gas furnaces to electric heating —could cut both energy consumption and CO2 emissions by 18%. Installing smart home technologies like the Sense Home Energy Monitor and smart thermometers would shave another 11% by providing homeowners with real-time insight into their home’s energy use and helping consumers with time-of-use rate plans save money by using their more power-hungry appliances in non-peak periods when electricity rates are lower.

Homeowners seeking to retrofit their home to cut energy consumption can use the Department of Energy’s Home Performance with Energy Star program to find experienced contractors who can explain how their home uses energy and identify home improvements that conserve energy, improve performance, and reduce utility bills.

People who are building a new home can realize bigger reductions, of roughly 80%, by requiring their architect to design the structure from the ground up to minimize energy consumption. (For inspiration, read about Sense customer Dennis Alex’s net zero house journey.) Buyers and architects should include solar panels that meet the house’s average annual electricity demand.

If you own or are buying an existing house, you still can make a difference. Replacing worn-out clothes dryers, furnaces, and water heaters—especially those powered by propane or natural gas—with new, energy-efficient electric models can significantly reduce your individual energy use and contribute to nationwide savings. The ACEEE report said raising efficiency standards for all appliances and expanding the ENERGY STAR program would shrink carbon emissions from homes by 13%.

These actions, combined with fundamental, nationwide systemic changes—which include big projects such as modernizing the electric grid, making freight carriers and airlines reduce or end their reliance on fossil fuels, retrofitting office buildings and other commercial properties, requiring net-zero energy design in new ones, and aggressively raising energy efficiency at factories, refineries, and other industrial enterprises—will make a marked difference in coming decades, but only if we take action and encourage others to do the same.

Many states are already moving aggressively in this direction, adopting path-breaking policies for energy storage, electric vehicles, energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, low carbon fuel standards, and emissions trading. On a national level, the Biden administration has set out aggressive energy and climate goals, and taken many steps to move away from a carbon economy and towards clean energy sources.

President Biden also has said he wants to set a national standard for how much of the power sold by utilities comes from renewable energy sources like hydro, solar, and wind. The idea is to increase the percentage over the next 15 years, weaning the U.S. off burning coal, oil, and gas to generate electricity.

Cleaner sources of electricity from the grid can magnify the environmental benefits of individuals’ actions to save energy, whether it’s making their next car an electric vehicle or swapping out their old gas stove for an induction cooktop that requires one-third as much energy.

While some of those steps may seem small individually and don’t demand a real sacrifice, the leader effect operates in every social milieu. Your neighbor may notice your new solar panels, heat pump air conditioning or electric vehicle and start thinking about how they can make changes for the better, too.