How to Create a Zero-Carbon Budget

Find out what you can do to move the needle on climate change by lowering your own carbon footprint.

Unlike the U.S. government, you don’t have to wait until 2050 to reach a goal of net zero emissions. You can set a personal goal to shrink your carbon footprint much faster.

How to Create a Zero-Carbon Budget

Unfortunately, the U.S. leads the way with one of the world’s highest rates of carbon footprints for individuals. Globally, the average carbon footprint is about four tons, according to the Nature Conservancy, a global environmental organization headquartered in Arlington, Va. In the U.S. the average carbon footprint for an individual is 16 tons. 

U.S. Individual
Carbon Footprint 

Global Individual
Carbon Footprint 

16 tons

4 tons


While other actions such as lowering carbon emissions in buildings and transportation systems are vital, the Nature Conservancy says the average global carbon footprint for individuals needs to drop to under two tons for individuals by 2050 to have the best chance to avoid a 2℃ rise in global temperatures. 

Measure First, Cut Twice or More

Measuring your carbon footprint is a good place to start. Several carbon footprint calculators are available online to help you estimate how much you contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, most will provide you with suggestions of what you can do to lower your carbon emissions, such as riding a bike instead of driving, adjusting your thermostat, installing solar panels, and more. 

When Green Builder Media recently surveyed consumers about the steps they’re taking to lower their carbon footprint, the top five actions taken to decarbonize include:

  1. Driving an EV (36%). 
  2. Increasing the energy efficiency of their home. (32%), 
  3. Having an all-electric home (31%). 
  4. Reducing waste (30%). 
  5. Installing solar power (29%). 

In addition, approximately 8% of consumers said they purchase carbon offsets to reduce their carbon footprint. 

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Source: COGNITION Smart Data

To calculate your carbon footprint, set goals and evaluate potential choices in terms of their emissions impact, try the Earth Hero app, the Klima app or the Commons app.

Start at Home

When you’re tracking your carbon emissions, the actions you take at home to reduce them are likely to have the added benefit of saving money. While apps can give you specific options based on your behavior, consider these categories:

  • Adjust your temperature. Whether you do it manually or with a programmable thermostat, lowering your temperature by 8 degrees in winter can save about 0.17 tons of carbon emissions annually, according to The Nature Conservancy. Increasing your temperature by that same amount in summer can save about 0.21 tons of carbon emissions.
  • Buy energy-efficient appliances. Replacing your refrigerator with an Energy Star model will save about 0.5 tons of carbon emissions annually, according to The Nature Conservancy. But new innovations such as Whirlpool Corporation's SlimTech Insulation Technology allow refrigerators to be up to 50% more energy efficient (Capacity and energy efficiency potential are inversely correlated). The vacuum-insulated structure technology is a step up from traditional polyurethane foam insulation because it reduces thermal conductivity. Temperature swings from door openings are less volatile because the insulation allows for cooling that is up to 30% faster. 
  • Adopt new laundry habits. If you do 100 loads of laundry per year, you can save 500 pounds of carbon emissions annually by using cold water instead of heated water for your laundry, according to Ditch your dryer and line dry seven loads of laundry per week and you’ll save .24 tons of carbon emissions annually, according to The Nature Conservancy. 
  • Purchase green electricity. Transferring your electricity purchases to a 100% green energy provider can save 3.76 tons of carbon emissions annually for a 1,300-square-foot home (depending on your average electricity usage), according to The Nature Conservancy. If you have a larger home or use more electricity, the savings could be higher.
  • Reduce your waste. If you typically throw out 0.5 cubic yards of waste each week and commit to reducing that by half, you could save nearly one ton of carbon emissions annually, according to The Nature Conservancy. You can reduce your trash output by buying reusable items, recycling more materials, repairing rather than replacing items and shopping for products with less packaging. Approximately 30% of food in the U.S. is wasted according to USDA estimates. Careful shopping and proper food storage with drawers for fruits and vegetables can reduce your food waste. 
  • Purchase carbon offsets: According to the EPA, the average American household emits about 14,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. Given this data, the approximate cost for every household in the United States to offset their carbon emissions would only be about $130 annually using Green Builder Media’s default carbon offsets portfolio.  While it’s essential to do as much as you can to reduce your carbon emissions, it’s also paramount to purchase offsets to counterbalance the emissions we can’t yet control.  Click here to purchase offsets.

Tackle Transportation

For many people, travel in a car or an airplane contributes the most to their carbon footprint. To turn that contribution into a positive one, ride a bike or walk to your destination. Of course, that’s not always possible in America’s car-centric communities or if you need to travel a longer distance. Still, you can make a difference in the following ways, according to The Nature Conservancy:

  • Switch to a more fuel-efficient car. If you drive about 10,000 miles per year and swap a car that gets 22 miles per gallon to one that gets 32 miles per gallon, you can save 2.19 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.
  • Buy an electric vehicle. Ditching the 22 miles per gallon car for an electric vehicle would save nearly 7 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.
  • Telecommute. If you normally drive 40 miles roundtrip to work each day, you save nearly one ton of carbon emissions annually by telecommuting four days per week.
  • Fly less. Flying typically generates the most carbon emissions of various transit options, so if it’s possible to take a train, a bus or drive instead of flying, that’s best. Generally, direct flights are better than connecting flights in terms of lowering your carbon emissions. Researchers found that on average, non-stop routes reduced carbon emissions by roughly 100 kg per person relative to the next best connecting option.

Create a Zero Carbon Budget

Whether you use an online calculator or an app to estimate your carbon footprint and what it will take to lower it, you can set your own net-zero carbon goals for the future. Achieving a net zero carbon budget would mean that the greenhouse gasses you generate would be offset by the carbon emissions you remove from the atmosphere.

In addition to reducing your emissions, you can buy carbon offsets that invest in technology to sequester carbon and contribute to projects that reduce greenhouse gasses. Some airlines include the ability to buy carbon offsets for individual flights through their website. You can buy carbon offsets to match with specific personal activities or buy them according to what you can afford.

Some reputable companies that provide carbon offset investment opportunities that meet CCP (CO₂ Capture Project) standards include Climeworks, Native Energy, 3Degrees, Terrapass, and MyClimate

Beyond Your Carbon Footprint

The steps you take on a personal level can limit your negative impact on the environment, but Katherine Hayhoe, a researcher, professor at Texas Tech University and chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, recommends advocating for climate action on a larger scale to drive more change.

Some of her suggestions, which are based on the social science of change, include:

  • Talk about climate solutions with people you know. You can watch Hayhoe’s TED talk for tips on how to do this.
  • Join a climate group, perhaps one of Hayhoe’s recommendations.
  • Choose financial institutions that take sustainability seriously. You can search the Bank for Good site for options. 
  • Advocate for decarbonization activities with elected officials, your workplace, your school and other organizations in your community.

Systemic change in transportation, agriculture, infrastructure and building materials and techniques will be required to achieve net zero goals on a global scale, but every personal step in that direction makes a difference, too. 

Publisher’s Note: This content is made possible by our Today’s Homeowner Campaign Sponsors: Whirlpool Corporation. Whirlpool Corporation takes sustainability seriously, in both their products and their operations. Learn more about building and buying homes that are more affordable and less resource intensive.