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Trying to reduce your carbon footprint? Don't fall for these myths

How to reduce your carbon footprint

Since Earth Day's founding nearly 50 years ago, April 22 has been an occasion for people to reflect on how they can treat the environment better. In recent years, with scientists around the world issuing increasingly urgent warnings about the scale of climate change and the shrinking window of time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the focus has been on reducing our climate footprint.

But when it comes to cutting down on carbon emissions, scientists say, many consumers are focusing on the wrong thing. Popular clean-living guides often focus on small changes while glancing by substantive choices that make a real dent in emissions. If carbon were money, these guides obsess on saving $400 a year by drinking fewer lattes instead of slashing your rent in half by getting roommates. Conversely, some things we love that may be good for the Earth aren't necessarily helpful to your carbon footprint.

With that in mind, here are some popular myths coupled with their climate-friendly alternatives.

  • Myth: Eat locally raised beef. Scientists say: Eat plants — from anywhere.

There are plenty of good reasons to eat locally produced food, but climate change isn't one of them.

Most of the carbon emissions created by food are created when it's grown and processed. Getting food from the farm to the store accounts for only about 4 percent of its overall carbon footprint, said John Rogers, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. You can have much more impact changing the types of things you eat than worrying about how far they travel. (There are exceptions to this — any food that was shipped via plane, like Peruvian asparagus in December, is probably a bad choice from the climate perspective.)

"If you're going to make one change in your diet to address the climate implications, the most effective choice for the average American is to eat less meat, especially beef," said Rogers. If a family of four were to cut its beef consumption in half, it would be the carbon equivalent of not driving for six months.

Beef is the most carbon-intensive food because of the sheer amount of plant food needed to raise a cow to eating age. And while they're growing, those cows create lots of methane — a greenhouse gas with four times the earth-warming gas than carbon dioxide. Other carbon-heavy foods are pigs, sheep and dairy products.

Overall, eating a plant-based diet is the top change a person can make to reduce their carbon footprint, scientists say.

  • Myth: Use a cotton tote or paper bags instead of a plastic bag. Scientists say: Use whatever bag you currently own — and use it until it falls apart.

With cities and states banning single-use plastic bags, consumers may be wondering about a substitute. Here, there's no easy answer — because many plastic-bag substitutes are themselves not great for the environment.

From the point of view of carbon emissions, paper bags can be worse than plastic. They're heavier (requiring more fuel to transport), and they're made from trees. A cotton tote needs to be reused at least 52 times to have the same climate impact as a single-use plastic bag, according to a 2018 study from Denmark. Woven mesh bags or plastic bags intended for reuse have a smaller carbon footprint than cotton bags.

But the best option is whatever bag is currently in your house, be it a tote or balled-up plastic bags. The key is to reuse it as much as possible, until it falls apart. And when it falls apart, use it to line your trash bin.

When it comes to consumer goods, Rogers' guiding principles is "buy less stuff and buy good stuff." He said: "Don't buy stuff you don't need, and buy quality when you do buy."

  • Myth: Weatherproof your house. Scientists say: Move to an apartment (and if you can't, weatherproof your house).

Buildings, and the fuel used to heat and cool them, are a massive contributor to climate emissions. And while making your house more efficient will help (as well as reduce your bills), a bigger impact comes from considering what type of house you live in — or whether to live in a house at all.

Urban planners have long noted that dense neighborhoods, with dwellings close to each other and on top of each other, are far more climate-friendly than their suburban counterparts. Not only are the buildings in those neighborhoods more energy-efficient compared to the number of people they accommodate, but their density means very little energy is used getting from place to place.

Density "is the front line of design where buildings intersect with the environmental problem," said David Erdman, chair of Graduate Architecture and Urban Planning at the Pratt Institute. "It is the elephant in the room, and it's the most difficult thing to design for because everyone wants lots of space, views and the like."

Why "green" buildings are sprouting in record numbers

Density is the reason a place like Hong Kong can have carbon emissions that are currently at the levels set by the Paris Accords, Erdman noted. "It has nothing to do with solar panels — it has to do with the density and the fact that people walk a lot."

But living in a city isn't an option for everyone. And even if humans were to build nothing from now on except tall, energy-efficient buildings, that still leaves a whole lot of existing housing stock that doesn't meet those standards.

When it comes to existing buildings, owners can consider moving heating systems off natural gas — a fossil fuel — and on to electric.

"Buildings already use electricity. So it's about adding electric capacity and equipment," said Jacob Corvidae, a principal in the buildings practice at Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank focused on sustainability. A furnace, air conditioner and water heater can all be replaced with an electric heat pump. And efficiency has a role to play, too. "Simple low-cost things like sealing up air leaks and adding insulation — those tend to be the fastest, cheapest way to reduce your energy needs and also make a place more comfortable," Corvidae said.

  • Myth: Drive short distances instead of flying. Scientists say: Take a bus. 

Emission from airplanes are a huge contributor to climate change, and increasing awareness of jet travel's impact is leading travelers to seek out alternatives. One climate scientist, who flew 50,000 miles for conferences in 2010, swore off flying when he discovered "the dissonance between my principles and my actions."

In nearly every case, the most climate-friendly way to travel long distances is via bus or train (and if the bus is electric, so much the better). If that's not an option, the "correct" choice can vary greatly depending on individual circumstances — how many people are traveling together, and what the alternative to driving is.

"If you're driving a typical SUV and it's just you, that could be a whole lot more emissions than flying on a large plane, if you're going 250 miles," said the UCS's Rogers. Indeed, UCS issues a guide ranking climate impacts of various travel methods, based on distance and number of people traveling together.

In day-to-day travel, cutting out or cutting down on driving can have a major effect, Rogers said. If you can't avoid driving, get the most efficient car possible, whether that's an electric car or a high-efficiency conventional car.

"If you go from a car that gets 20 miles per gallon to a car that gets 40, that cuts close to 4 tons of carbon dioxide off your annual emissions," nearly 20 percent of an individual's total emissions, he said. Driving less, by doing multiple errands at once and carpooling, can also help. But, he said, "it's easier to make a good decision once — and the chances are, most Americans are going to be buying a new or used car sometime soon."