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Small Changes Help US Families Jumpstart Greener Lifestyle

Small lifestyle changes make big difference for planet

The Stokes from Falls Church, Virginia, say what they are doing is right for the planet and the pocketbook.
The Stokes from Falls Church, Virginia, say what they are doing is right for the planet and the pocketbook.

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Rosanne Skirble

A few years ago some residents of the Swedish town of Kalmar on the Baltic Sea made a pledge to address the negative impact their energy use was having on the global environment. Within a year, the 12 participating families had reduced their climate-changing carbon emissions - its carbon footprint - by one-third.

Their jurisdiction had already made a commitment to completely shun fossil fuels and derive all of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.  

Kalmar's green-energy eco-initiative is documented in an exhibition at the Swedish Embassy in Washington. It is also serving as a model for a Swedish-government sponsored program to engage average Americans - among the world's most extravagant energy users - in a similar effort.

Nolan and Kathy Stokes heard about the Climate Pilot program last July and decided to take on the challenge to use energy more efficiently in their Falls Church, Virginia home.

The geothermal heat pump is a major investment, costing over $30,000, but the Stokes say government tax credits and lower heating and cooling bills will pay for the system in the long run.
The geothermal heat pump is a major investment, costing over $30,000, but the Stokes say government tax credits and lower heating and cooling bills will pay for the system in the long run.

Small Changes, Big Impact

On this cold winter day the Stokes have engaged two work crews. One is replacing windows with double pane glass. The other has parked its huge drilling rig on the front lawn to dig a 200-meter hole for a geothermal heat pump.

The ground source heat pump is the most ambitious investment so far, says Kathy Stokes, a lawyer who like her husband, a financial planner, works at home. "We were recycling and changing light bulbs to more efficient ones, but we kept thinking and saying, 'There's got to be more to reducing our carbon footprint.'"

Lars Roth, the Swedish Embassy's First Environment Secretary, says the Climate Pilot program builds on the idea that in tackling the global environment crisis, individual actions can make a positive difference. "You can have laws. You can have economic stimulus packages to green your economy, but in the end it comes down to consumer choices, what each one of us decides to do in our daily lives."

Forty years ago, Sweden - like the United States - was largely dependent on imported fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas. The burning of these fuels releases large amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the earth's atmosphere.

Each person on the Kalmar Climate Pilot team calculated carbon emissions from products and services purchased before and after the eco-experiment and then served as coaches for American families in the Swedish Embassy program.
Each person on the Kalmar Climate Pilot team calculated carbon emissions from products and services purchased before and after the eco-experiment and then served as coaches for American families in the Swedish Embassy program.

Taking Action

But in the 1970s, after oil supply interruptions and fuel-price shocks, Sweden began to make the switch from petroleum imports to renewables and nuclear energy with considerable success. Roth says 43 percent of total energy production is based on renewable sources. "Almost 80 percent of our electricity production is based on either renewable or nuclear. It's almost fossil [fuel] free."

Sweden's per capita carbon emissions fell, too. Today, each person in the country generates 7.4 metric tons of carbon every year. The average American, on the other hand, produces 23.5 metric tons of carbon annually, according to Tim Herzog, a climate policy analyst with the World Resources Institute, a private Washington-based research group. "The major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions at a national level is energy consumption. The primary drivers of that are electricity and where a country gets its electricity. The United States gets about half of its electricity from coal."

The Climate Pilot program identifies four areas where Americans can start reducing their carbon footprint: energy use, food consumption, leisure time and transportation - activities, things that Americans aren't used to questioning, says Nolan Stokes. "We got a little training from the Swedes and some encouragement to actually critically start looking at what we were doing." This led the Stokes to check kilowatt output, plug leaks, install insulation, switch to more energy-efficient appliances, carpool more and cut down on meat consumption.  

Kathy Stokes says the goal, consistent with that of their Swedish climate coaches, is to change simple habits. "I don't feel like we are sacrificing in any way. I think that if people were more aware of the easy things they could do to reduce their carbon footprint, I think they'd do them."  

Nolan Stokes agrees. "You need early adopters, to not just adopt these behaviors, but to be proponents for adoption of these behaviors. Somebody's got to make noise about doing it, and we're willing to do that."

The Stokes are also teaching energy-saving habits to their children, 9-year-old Ryker and 8-year-old Lee.
The Stokes are also teaching energy-saving habits to their children, 9-year-old Ryker and 8-year-old Lee.

A Family Affair

The Stokes are also teaching energy-saving habits to their children, 9-year-old Ryker and 8-year-old Lee. "[The kids] walk around the house and make sure that all the computer monitors are off. They are turning lights off as they leave the room," Kathy says. "They are fine with not eating much beef and changing their eating habits."

Ryker and Lee, Nolan says, are taking showers instead of baths because showers take less time and use less hot water. "[The children] are just totally on board with the whole thing."

Lee says she gets the message out to her friends. "I tell them not to use so much electricity." When asked why, Ryker pipes in that he's helping the family "do stuff that would be better for the Earth."
    
The Stokes support legislation now pending in the U.S. Congress that would curb U.S. carbon emissions. But they also think that with or without new laws, every American can do more to emit less. They say while it took a push from Sweden to jumpstart their greener lifestyle, they hope that as Climate Pilots they can help blaze a trail for other Americans toward a more energy-efficient and Earth-friendly future.

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