This guide to effortless environmentalism is based on two assumptions:
1. You want to do your part to protect the earth.
2. Your name is not Ed Begley, Jr.
If you are Ed Begley — in fact, if you’re anything like the actor — then you don’t really want to hear that it’s possible to be an armchair environmentalist. Begley delights in making sacrifices for Mother Earth. He lives in a two-bedroom home, microscopic by Hollywood standards, with solar panels on the roof to charge his electric car and heat the rainwater he collects. He composts compulsively and knows which of the seven kinds of plastic to recycle. He cooks food from his garden in a solar oven. He harangues his wife about her wastefulness. As viewers of HGTV’s green reality show Living With Ed know, he has used a stopwatch to time her showers.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this lifestyle — if you get the same satisfaction out of it that Begley does and if it doesn’t drive your family crazy. But if you prefer to conserve your energy for other endeavors, you can ease your conscience. You don’t have to feel bad to do good. There are smart ways to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that don’t take much effort. They can even simplify your life by saving you time and money. To become an armchair environmentalist, just relax and follow these little steps:
1. Skip a Trip
Sitting in your La-Z-Boy instead of in an airplane seat is the easiest way to make a big difference in greenhouse emissions. Forgoing a single international trip might offset all the carbon dioxide you produce through your home and car during the entire year. Besides spewing CO2, jets emit water vapors and other greenhouse gases (like nitrogen oxides) that are believed to be at least as damaging as the CO2 (maybe even twice as damaging, by some estimates).
The nonprofit group Environmental Defense calculates that an international round-trip between cities 4,000 miles apart (like, say, Al Gore’s home in Nashville and Oslo, Norway, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize) produces approximately eight tons in CO2-equivalent gases per passenger. That’s roughly the amount of CO2 produced yearly, per person, to power the average American car and supply heat and electricity for the average home.
2. Hire Someone to Seal Up Your House
You could weatherproof your home yourself, of course, but you can lazily delegate the job and still come out ahead financially in the long run. Merely sealing leaks in windows and doors and insulating ducts could save you at least $100 a year and reduce CO2 emissions by at least 1,000 pounds per year — and possibly much more. Adding insulation to your home could double the savings.
3. Work From Home
You’ve heard the exhortations to carpool or take mass transit to work, but you probably haven’t heeded them. Despite all the official encouragement, like special carpool lanes and hefty subsidies for mass transit, in recent decades the percentage of people who drive alone to work has been increasing, while the share of commuters who carpool or take mass transit has been declining. Unless you live in New York or a few other cities, these options just aren’t practical when you’re juggling work and family responsibilities as more and more jobs move to the suburbs and beyond.
Meanwhile, though, there’s been one encouraging trend: The number of people who telecommute has increased by more than 40 percent since 1980. Today more than 4 million workers telecommute most days, and nearly 20 million Americans work from home at least once a month. In most U.S. metro areas, telecommuters now outnumber people who get to work by mass transit, says Ted Balaker, a fellow at the Reason Foundation.
Telecommuting isn’t for everyone, of course, but surveys have found that both employers and employees are warming up to this option. Companies like American Express have found telecommuting increases worker productivity. Businesses that let people work at home save money on rent and utilities by using less office space, and attract and retain employees more easily. In one survey, a third of Americans said they’d rather have the option to telecommute than an increase in salary. What’s good for the bottom line and worker morale is also good for the atmosphere: One person telecommuting just one day a week can reduce emissions by 400 pounds per year.
4. Drive a Fuel-Efficient Car
Choosing the right car is a tricky thing. How, for instance, do you balance fuel efficiency with other factors like safety and convenience? But this is one task that merits the attention of even the laziest environmentalist. A few hours of research can save thousands of dollars and tens of thousands of pounds of CO2 over the life of the car.
On a social level, getting people to drive more efficient cars is a much smarter carbon-busting strategy than trying to lure them to mass transit, according to Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. He calculates that most urban transit systems emit at least as much CO2 per passenger mile (because of all the empty seats) as the average passenger car. (The transit systems in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland, Boston and Chicago are exceptions.)
“Getting commuters to switch to hybrid or biodiesel cars will cost less and save more energy than getting them to switch to public transit,” says O’Toole, noting that a Toyota Prius has lower CO2 emissions per passenger mile than every transit system except for the New York City subways and the San Francisco BART trains.
5. Use Cruise Control
Letting your car’s computer control the speed is a win-win for laziness and the environment. Most tips for improving gas mileage require some work on your part, like keeping your tires inflated properly (which can improve mileage by 3 percent and save about 250 pounds of CO2 annually for the average driver).
But you might double that improvement just by relaxing with cruise control. Tests by edmunds.com found that using cruise control improved mileage by 7 percent. (One exception: Cruise control can use more gas if you’re driving in very hilly terrain.)
Even more savings are possible if you’ve got a car with the new “adaptive cruise control” that uses radar or lasers to keep you at a safe distance from other cars. The more drivers who use these systems, the more smoothly traffic flows, resulting in less congestion and therefore less fuel wasted.