Budgeting your global footprint

Marketplace Staff Feb 9, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: An intergovernmental panel has made it official. The group concluded last week that global warming is unequivocal. And there’s not much debate about who’s causing it: it’s you.

The panel found that there’s a better than 90 percent chance that humans are to blame. The report also said humans could reduce the consequences of warming, if we act fast. But how does “Stop global warming” fit into the monthly budget? Janet Babin reports from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio.

JANET BABIN: Given the choice, most of us would love to cut back on how much pollution we spew into the air.

That can cost a lot. There’s the perception that you have to be rich and famous to go green. But actor-activist Ed Begley says anyone can do it.

ED BEGLEY: I urge everybody to do what I did, which is do the cheap stuff first, then I saved money from that then I went on to the next level.

We tested Begley’s advice at Mary DeMare’s house in the North Carolina woods. It’s her first home. About 1,000 square feet, and cold, even though the heat is cranked.

MARY DEMARE: Sitting in my couch, it’s like wind blows . . .

So Mary agreed to listen to some free advice about how she can keep warm without warming up the planet.

[Walking to front door]

That’s our emissions guru, Lyle Estill. He founded Piedmont Biofuels, the largest bio diesel co-op in the country. And right away, he targets Mary’s electric powered heat pump system.

Most electricity in this part of the country, Estill says, comes from plants that burn coal — a fossil fuel and big-time contributor to the green house effect.

LYLE ESTILL: We’re on forced air . . . is that right, forced air electrical . . . so electrical plant emissions are bigger than transportation, if we get into climate change. So if we want to go solve something. Electricity should be number one.

It turns out Mary’s house has no insulation, so a lot of her heat is heading outside. Big problem.

She does have a wood stove. Estill says using it could save her money and reduce her electricity use. Ah, But the emissions from the stove would still contribute to Mary’s carbon footprint.

ESTILL: It’s an old wood stove, and it doesn’t have any afterburner, so you’re not actually burning the exhaust, so it’s an old out of date wood stove.

Estill’s recommendation?

ESTILL: Go get a new wood stove. How much would that cost? Less than a thousand bucks. What do you think Mary? OK, what else can I do? (Laughs)

While Mary ponders the expense of a new wood stove, Estill tells her to get insulation first, so no matter how she heats the house, the warmth stays inside. The insulation could cost more than the stove, but it would be worth it – she could cut her greenhouse gas emissions and her electricity bills. Estill also recommends Mary buy a new refrigerator.

He says any fridge over 10 years old is a serious electricity-waster. That could run anywhere from 800 to thousands of dollars.

But Estill did have some less expensive ideas, like buying a $20 insulation sleeve for her hot water heater. And he says she should plug her microwaves and computers into power strips. Appliances draw electricity even when they’re turned off but still plugged in.

Estill says Mary should only use compact florescent light bulbs. Those are the squiggly ones, available just about everywhere now.

David Wyss is an economist with Standard & Poors.

DAVID WYSS: It’s going to cost more to get that compact florescent. It’s going to cost more to switch our appliances over, especially in the short run. In the long run, we may end up saving money. Certainly we will on these kinds of conservation techniques.

Wyss says it will likely cost the U.S. $100 to $200 billion over the next five to eight years to make switches like this. But that’s less, he says than the long term cost of continued fossil fuel use.

But actor Ed Begley doesn’t like to think that big:

BEGLEY: The idea is to do something. Pick something today and do it.

Mary picked insulation. She’s researching what material is most economical, and closest to carbon neutral. Between the insulation and the appliance power strips, she thinks she can save over 40 percent on her electric bills.

I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace Money.

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