Small changes at home make a big difference in climate change efforts

While longer-term options are being developed, individual households can reduce overall carbon emissions by implementing a series of small changes, such as lowering the temperature on water heaters and regularly performing maintenance on cars and air-conditioners, according to an article published today.

Jonathan Gilligan, associate professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and associate director of the university’s Climate Change Research Network, and Michael P. Vandenbergh, professor of law and CCRN director, are co-authors of a study released today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Lead author is Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University.

Dietz, Gilligan, Vandenbergh and colleagues identified 17 types of actions households could take, ranging from one-time tasks, such as installing better insulation, to ongoing tasks, such as washing clothes on colder temperatures.

The researchers found that these actions, if implemented by everyone, could reduce annual household carbon emissions in the United States by up to 37 percent. Using the results of past energy-efficiency programs to estimate the number of people who would actually take these actions, the researchers concluded that it would be possible to reduce household emissions by 20 percent in the next 10 years, reducing total U.S. emissions by 7.4 percent.

Some of the actions identified include replacing older furnaces with Energy Star models, installing low-flow showerheads and efficient water heaters, replacing large-screen plasma televisions with rear-projection or LCD units, using low-rolling resistance tires and maintaining autos regularly, changing HVAC filters, washing clothes at lower temperatures and hanging them up to dry during temperate months, setting back the thermostat, carpooling and combining errands to reduce errand mileage, and reducing idling while driving.

“What is unique about this paper is that it incorporates research on behavior to estimate the actual number of people who might choose to take the actions, rather than merely estimating what would happen if everyone did so,” Gilligan said.

The article, titled “Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce U.S. carbon emissions,” may be accessed at For more information about PNAS, contact Ashley M. Truxon, media assistant, at (202) 334-1310 or

Media Contact: Jennifer Johnston (615) 322-NEWS

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