There are thousands of little actions you can take to reduce your carbon footprint -- but you should consider a few major factors first.
Sustainability experts say, for instance, that changing your diet or the way you get to work can significantly cut the amount of planet-warming emissions released into the atmosphere as a result of your daily life.
And considering that the average American is responsible for about 20 tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year -- the equivalent of driving a gasoline-powered car nonstop for 40,000 miles -- we should take a long, hard look at how our lifestyles contribute to climate change.
“It’s great if you can figure out where to recycle your batteries, but it’s not as critical to your overall footprint as a handful of choices we make,” Andrew Winston, sustainable business consultant and author of The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer and More Open World, told The Huffington Post.
Here are five of the most critical factors impacting your carbon footprint:
1. Where You Live
Where you lay your head can have a huge effect on how much carbon you spew into the atmosphere. In general, living in the U.S. isn't great for the planet, but some places in America are more climate-friendly than others.
Cities suck up a lot of energy and resources and are responsible for 75 percent of the world's CO2 emissions. Densely populated cities, however, tend to have smaller carbon footprints than outlying suburbs. Urban areas that aren't very dense or that have a lot of suburban sprawl are actually worse for the planet.
The kind of house or apartment you live in also matters, according to John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living.
“Are you in a big, leaky house or in a small, efficient house?” Rogers said. "How do you use energy at home?"
2. What You Eat
The average American’s diet is responsible for almost nine tons of carbon emissions every year. Eating red meat is particularly carbon-intensive. Beef has a much higher carbon footprint than grains and veggies -- 11 times higher, according to the Guardian -- and requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken.
Simply abandoning beef, or merely eating less of it, could be more effective at curbing emissions than driving less often.
“The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat,” University of Leeds professor Tim Benton told the Guardian in 2014.
This doesn't mean you necessarily have to give up steaks and cheeseburgers altogether. Even small changes in diet can have a big effect on emissions.
“Eating a vegetarian meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles,” according to the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan.
3. How You Commute
Driving to and from work, especially if you live in the suburbs, can add pounds of carbon to your output. Cars and light trucks were responsible for around 1.2 billion tons of CO2 emissions in 2013 -- a full 16 percent of U.S. emissions.
But not everyone owns a car. Those thinking about buying one should try to get something fuel-efficient, Rogers said.
Public transportation is a more efficient than cars, though. An average ride on the New York City subway saves each rider about 10 pounds of CO2 emissions, compared to traveling the same distance by car, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Not everyone has access to mass transit, however, and the cities where it isn’t easily accessible are some of the poorest in the country.
4. How You Invest
Activists and nonprofit organizations have recognized this power and are encouraging investors big and small to divert money away from the fossil fuel industry. These divestment campaigners have already persuaded institutions worth at least $3.4 trillion to withdraw their money from fossil fuel companies, according to the nonprofit Divest Invest Initiative.
It’s not just billionaires and huge institutions that are using investment choices to shape policy. Pension funds and private companies account for 95 percent of the money committed to divestment, according to a report from investment consultant group Arabella Advisors, and students at campuses around the country are pressing their universities to divest from fossil fuels.
What’s important, Rogers said, is that people think about the decisions they make with their dollars. “We do that through the purchases we make or choose not to make, and we do that with our decisions about what we’re investing in,” he told HuffPost.
5. Who You Vote For
In the long run, government policies can do more to limit global carbon emissions than what consumers eat or buy. The stakes for the climate are high this presidential election cycle: The most popular Republican candidates -- Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio -- deny that climate change is caused by humans, according to a report from NPR.
Winston and Rogers both see political action and personal consumption as pieces of the same puzzle.
“It’s about being a low-carbon leader -- taking it to work and to school, taking it to your community, going to your elected leaders and saying this is something I care about,” Rogers said.
Not everyone has the power to radically change their lifestyle. It takes a great deal of power and resources to retool one’s life with an eye toward cutting carbon emissions.
What’s important, Winston said, is that people think about climate change and do what they can.
“Climate change is the most systemic challenge and largest scale challenge we’ve ever faced as humanity,” he said. “Given that, it requires action on all fronts, and we need a combination of things coming from everywhere in society."