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More than pretty pictures

It’s not every day that a mainstream magazine with a national circulation of eight million publishes a cover story on how to save energy at home. But that’s what National Geographic (March 2009 issue) delivers in an article about “the fastest, least expensive way to slow climate change.”

The magazine’s editor Peter Miller poses a challenge: can he and his wife reduce their household emissions to 30 pounds of CO2 per day, 80% less than the current U.S. average? This is the amount of reductions that scientists say the entire human population needs to achieve by 2050, if we are to avoid catastrophic alterations to the planet.

Together with a couple of his Northern Virginia neighbors, Miller begins a month-long quest to squeeze the carbon out of daily living. The families start tracking every source of emissions from home energy use to driving the car to taking airplane flights. Within days, Miller and his wife begin using a large fan instead of central AC, dial down the water heater, walk or bike for errands, and work from home when possible. An energy audit helps them to identify other home improvements they can take to cut out more waste.

At the end of the 30-day test, the Millers found that they had cut their electricity use by 70% compared to the same month the previous year, trimmed the natural gas bill by 40%, and reduced their driving by half. Overall, the Millers got down to 70 pounds of CO2 per day — not as much as they had hoped — but still impressive given the relatively modest lifestyle changes required.

A single round-trip airplane flight doubles their monthly carbon impact, a sobering fact that makes the writer question future discretionary trips.

Millions of people will need to replicate these personal carbon-saving vignettes if we’re going to get on a meaningful emission reduction path. National Geographic readers are the right audience to challenge.

*[Also, check out the very cool photos that accompany the National Geographic piece — Ed.]*

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