What's the best environmental value for your dollar?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Dec. 9 2008 7:20 AM

How To Spend Your Christmas Cash

What's the best environmental value for your dollar?

Every Christmas, my grandmother puts a check for $100 into my stocking. This year, I want to spend that money on reducing my carbon footprint. How can I do the most good with that money?

100 dollars.
The greenest use of your greenbacks

What a good boy you are! The Lantern is glowing with pride. Unfortunately, this is a thorny question, and your most fundamental assumption may be wrong: It's possible that Grandma's check shouldn't be spent on reducing your own carbon footprint at all but instead on larger-scale efforts to help the environment. While the Lantern firmly believes individual choices can make a difference, efforts to combat global warming, protect biodiversity, and keep air and water clean will ultimately depend more on government action than consumer choices. So there's a strong case to be made that your dollars will go furthest in support of groups that lobby for environmental issues. If public advocacy is not your bag, you might donate that money to environmental charities that run their own green projects—like, say, rain forest adoption programs.

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If these ideas don't excite you, the Lantern recommends putting the new cash toward insulating your family's home. Of course, whether this makes sense depends on your local climate and whether you buy or rent. (Likewise, the current state of your home will determine just how much insulation your $100 will buy.) For the rest of you, it might be wisest to replace any antiquated, energy-inefficient appliances you might have—along the lines spelled out here. (Let's put aside the complicated question of carbon offsets, which will be addressed in a future column. Suffice to say that they wouldn't be the Lantern's first choice.)

Insulation doesn't sound as sexy as, say, a solar-panel messenger bag. But to understand why it may be the best choice, the Lantern recommends a report from the McKinsey Climate Change Special Initiative, and a free online book by Cambridge professor David MacKay called Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air. Neither is framed as a how-to guide for personal conservation, but they both provide information on how we might make the biggest environmental impact for the least money.

The McKinsey report (PDF) tries to answer that question by constructing a "cost abatement curve," which describes how much money it would take to prevent 1 ton of greenhouse-gas emissions through different approaches, from improving lighting systems to carbon capture and storage. (Worth noting: The firm's work has been supported by utility companies, among others.) If you look at that graph—found here—you'll notice that many of these costs are actually negative, meaning that reducing carbon emissions actually saves money. For example, through 2030, every ton of carbon-equivalent emissions reduced by improving fuel efficiency will save about 50 euros. Globally, investing in insulation gives the largest financial return—earning more than 100 euros per ton of emissions. While your specific location may change the numbers some, McKinsey data suggest that insulation—along with energy-efficient appliances and compact fluorescent light bulbs—are usually good bets.

MacKay, for his part, is skeptical about how much consumers can do to reduce carbon emissions absent significant regulatory changes, pointing out that "if everyone does a little, we'll only achieve a little." But he does identify a few individual behaviors that can make a difference, taken together. He starts with the steps that won't even require cashing in Grandma's check: eating less meat, driving less, and, perhaps most crucially, flying less. His other top choices for action include double-glazing your windows and—you guessed it—improving your insulation.

For practical advice on how to go about insulating, the Lantern defers to the Department of Energy's compendium of information here, as well as this nifty program for determining how much money you might save. Keep in mind that all types of insulation can save energy, but some insulating materials are greener than others. The Lantern's recommendation? Thank Grandma for the check, and tell her you've got your eye on a nice bag of cellulose.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.

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