Jessica Wei
Jan 15
Your Essential Guide to a Low-Carbon, Climate-Friendly Home

Photo from Unsplash

Photo from Unsplash

So you’ve measured your carbon footprint, and maybe you’re pretty alarmed by the size of the number preceding the tCO2e. That is, metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

All that carbon just to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and to keep your family clothed and fed? Okay, yes, those are worthy needs, and we’re not suggesting you turn off your furnace for good.

But if you’re like most North Americans, there are tons of opportunities to make your household more energy efficient.

Our dwelling spaces are responsible for a massive 75 percent of our personal carbon footprints.

Knowing how much carbon you’re responsible for is only the first step. The next is to reduce those greenhouse gas emissions.

And while there are many ways to approach this goal—like updating how you get around, what you eat and how you shop—one of the most effective strategies is to downscale your carbon footprint at home.

The fact is, our dwelling spaces are responsible for a massive 75 percent of our personal carbon footprints. All those conveniences that make a house habitable by modern standards—running water, heat and AC, electricity and so on—are responsible, directly or indirectly, for greenhouse gas emissions.

That might be the natural gas you burned to reheat your mom’s lasagna; the coal-fired electricity fueling your central air; the power and resources used to treat and transport the water flowing out of your faucet; or the potent greenhouse gases that make refrigeration possible.

Mother and small child washing hands at the sink
Link | Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The good news is, for all of the ways your house has an environmental toll, there are just as many changes you can make to reduce your emissions.

Sure, you could go full-tilt right away and install solar panels on your roof or rip out your lawn to grow a carbon-caching microforest, and those investments would make a remarkable impact.

But you can also start small and build your way up, slowly and steadily, habit by habit, until limiting your carbon output becomes something you no longer think about—but just do.

You’ll see the results in the savings you reap on your next energy bill. You’ll know you’ve made a difference by watching your kids turn off the tap when they’re brushing their teeth—of their own volition.

Here’s how to get started.

Minor adjustments for major achievements

Let’s begin with the easy wins.

These are the actions you can implement right now, without dropping a dime or calling in a professional—the no-brainers, the set-it-and-forget-its.

They may seem like small seeds, but you can reap surprisingly large energy savings over time. If you build these habits into your life, you’ll be setting your household up for long-term success.

Window half open with a spikey plant in front of it
Photo by William Santos on Unsplash

Heating and cooling 

• Turn down your thermostat by two degrees in the winter, and turn up your thermostat by two degrees in the summer. Maybe even try three or four degrees each way. Do it gradually, and you may not even notice a difference.

• Keep blankets well within reach during the cold season, and start viewing AC and heating as only-when-needed measures. Treat it as a personal challenge to see how comfortably you can live without them. If you’re cold, layer up and grab a blanket. If you’re hot, place a fan by an open window to get some fresh air in the house.

Try turning down your thermostat by two degrees in the winter, and turning it up by two degrees in the summer.

• In summer, consider cooking outside or making no-cook meals rather than heating up the house by using the oven (then having to cool it down again). Keep curtains closed when the sun is hitting windows to prevent heat from entering your home.

• In winter, consider keeping lesser-used rooms blocked off, with vents closed, to limit the area of your home you’re heating. Open curtains when the sun is hitting windows (it’s free solar energy!), but make sure to close them at night to keep heat in.

Woman opening fridge to retrive an orange


• Unplug chargers, gadgets and appliances when you’re not using them. Even when an appliance is off it will use standby power, slowly pulling energy out of a socket even when not in use. These loads account for 1 percent of carbon dioxide emissions globally.

• Don’t forget to turn things off when you’re not using them: lights, computers, televisions and other appliances.

• Keep your fridge temperature moderate. A fridge doesn’t need to be set lower than 38°F, and the freezer should be no lower than 0°F. (While you’re at it, consider unplugging or safely disposing of that fridge or freezer in the garage you don’t generally use.)

• Put your fridge in the right place. A clearance of around two inches between your refrigerator and the back wall will ensure proper airflow. If possible, move your fridge out of warm areas, like in direct sunlight or near the stove or dishwasher, so it won’t have to contend with nearby fluctuating temperatures to stay cool.

Man holding hose spraying water on his lawn
Photo by Gratisography from Pexels


• Hear a drip? Get that wrench out and boot up some YouTube tutorials. Leaky faucets account for 1 trillion gallons of wasted water annually across the country. Check your toilet flappers, faucets, sprinklers, garden hose and irrigation systems for any leaks—and learn to fix them yourself so you’re not waiting around for a professional the next time they happen.

• Check the temperature on your hot water heater. In most cases, 120°F is the optimal temperature—higher than that and you’ll risk scalding as well as using more energy than you need. 

• If your toilet isn’t low-flow already, you can fake it rather than installing an upgrade. Carefully put a plastic container filled with pebbles and rocks or a brick wrapped in plastic in your toilet tank to help reduce around 0.14 gallons of water per flush.

• Run cold-water laundry cycles. Up to 90 percent of the energy we use to wash clothing goes toward heating water. Here’s what you can wash in cold water: Dark or brightly colored fabrics, delicates and lightly soiled clothes. Reserve hot-water loads for heavily soiled clothes and rags, and warm water for towels and linens. 

• Turn off the tap when you’re brushing your teeth, shaving, washing your hands, and lathering your hair. 

Fix leaky faucets — they account for 1 trillion gallons of wasted water annually in the US.

• Opt for a short shower over a bath (and save the long showers for special occasions). An eight-minute shower uses 17 gallons of water, while the average bath uses 30 gallons. 

• But if you do need that soak to unwind, you can use the greywater from your bath to water your garden and houseplants. Just make sure your soap products don’t contain boron, salt or chlorine bleach. 

• Less work and fewer GHGs? Sounds like a win-win. Using a dishwasher for all your dishes (assuming it’s a modern, energy-efficient model) emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases than most manual hand-washing. That includes both the energy used to heat up the water as well as the overall water usage. The trick? Skipping pre-rinsing as well as the heated drying cycle

If you take a bath, you can use the greywater from your bath to water your garden and houseplants.

• No dishwasher at home? No problem—it’s just a matter of refining your technique. (Hand-washing with a running tap produces the highest GHGs of all the methods.) The greenest option of all is the two-basin method of hand-washing. Fill one sink or basin with hot water to soak and scrub your dishes and one sink with cool water to rinse, then let your dishes air dry.

Person using a dish towel to dry a glass
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Put your money where your emissions are

We know how much owning a home can feel like a money and energy pit.

Not only do you have to do routine maintenance, but there are always surprises like the dishwasher breaking down. But if you’re already investing the money and effort into basic home upkeep, why not put it toward some greener options?

Here’s what you need to know: Emissions-wise, heating and cooling a single-family detached home takes up about 54 percent of your annual home energy use. Heating up water uses another 17 percent.

If you’re ready to start future-proofing your home, a few strategic investments now will set you up for decades worth of savings on your carbon emissions and your energy bill. (Tip: You can hire a professional to do an energy audit of your home—they’ll look for things like air leaks and gaps in insulation—or DIY it with this guide from the Department of Energy.)

Exterior of an energy efficient home
Photo by Kyle DeSantis on Unsplash

Heating and cooling 

• Make sure your home is airtight to keep the outside cold truly outside. Caulk and weatherstrip your doors and windows, check around your dryer vent and kitchen exhaust pipe for air leaks, and fill gaps in your insulation with foam sealant.

• Thoroughly check the insulation in your home to see if there is room for improvement. Tell-tale signs of poor insulation include temperature changes from room to room, icicles hanging off your roof in the wintertime and unusually high power bills.

• Install a smart thermostat like Nest or Ecobee. These devices track your energy usage, detect when you’re home to turn on the heat or the AC when needed, and adjust indoor air according to outside air temperatures.

• Install ceiling fans to get air moving in rooms where you would normally be tempted to crank up the AC in the summer. While they won’t change the temperature, the wind chill will help cool your skin. Just don’t forget to turn them off when you’re not in the room.

Woman using smart phone to adjust the heat on her thermostat


• Replace incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient lighting, like compact fluorescent or LED bulbs. LEDs are pricier, but they last the longest, and they give you the opportunity to light up your rooms in multiple colors at a whim. (So popular with the kids!)

• Set up power strips so you can easily turn off hard-to-reach entertainment devices like TVs, gaming consoles and speakers when they’re not in use.

• If possible in your region, switch to an electricity company that offers renewable energy, or sign up for a program from your current provider. Try an internet search or check with your municipal or regional government for recommendations.


• Install low-flow shower heads, faucet fixtures and toilets.

• Upgrade your commode. Older toilets use up to eight gallons of water with every flush, a lot more than the 1.6 gallons used by newer models. If you’re not ready to replace your old clunker yet, most toilets can be retrofitted to include a low-flow option.

Replace your old toilet or retrofit it to include a low-flow option.


• If your fridge is more than 15 years old, consider replacing it with a newer, more eco-friendly model. Older refrigerators rely on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) to trap heat. Scientists estimate that these greenhouse gases are, on average, 4,000 times more harmful per molecule than carbon dioxide. The financial savings you get from kicking that energy-drain to the curb will pay for itself over time.

• Downsize your fridge if a smaller model will do, to keep your energy use down. You’re also likely to lower your food waste this way, a double benefit for the climate as produce that ends up in the landfill releases emissions in the form of methane. Tip: fewer fruits and vegetables than you think need to be stored in the fridge. Learn how to properly store your food, and you’ll find yourself opening your fridge less often (thus keeping cold air in) and losing less food to the recesses of your crisper drawer.

Install a clothesline—or buy a drying rack—and skip the dryer as often as possible.

• Look for Energy Star approval when it comes time to replace your appliances. These energy-efficient models are designed to save 10 to 50 percent more energy and water than standard appliances.

• Install a clothesline—or buy a drying rack—and skip the dryer as often as possible. Not only will you save plenty of energy, it’ll help your clothing, sheets and towels last longer. Plus, that fresh scent of line-dried clothes beats bottled fabric softener any day of the week.

Two pairs of socks on laundy line
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

That ultra low-carbon life, inside and out

So you’ve upgraded your homestead from top to bottom with the most energy-efficient appliances on the market—or at least you’re planning to when the time comes. Now, you’re ready to get your hands dirty. You want to contribute to the solution, not just lessen your role in the problem. You’re ready to go full-on granola, and you’re ready to inspire your neighbors, too. Here’s how your family can leap into a climate-friendly future, starting right at home.

Renos with purpose

•Consider installing rooftop solar panels to harness the power of sunlight and turn it into electricity. If you’re connected to the grid, you might even be able to earn cash from your renewable energy investment. Check with your local utility companies.

A cool roof deflects sunlight away from your house, minimizing the need for indoor cooling.

• Tankless water heaters run cold water through heating units rather than storing and constantly heating up huge tanks of water on standby. Go fully tankless and you’ll be saving energy wherever you use water, from appliances to bathrooms. 

• If you live in a moderate climate, heat pumps are a smart alternative to air conditioning and conventional heating. They use electricity to pull heat from the outdoors into your home to supply warm air during colder months, and move heat from your home outdoors to keep cool rooms even cooler in the summer.

Sustainable home with solar panels on the roof
Photo by Vivint Solar from Pexels

In the garden

• Lawns use up enormous amounts of water (not to mention fuel for all that mowing). Lower the impact of your outdoor space with climate-friendly landscaping designed to flourish in your locale. That might mean native trees and plants, a rock garden, a collection of cacti and succulents, or a pollinator garden designed to offer food and habitat to bees and butterflies.

Plant trees and shrubs in strategic locations to help shield your home from sun and wind.

• Don’t let free water go down the drain. Collect your rainwater with a rain barrel attached to your gutter downspout, or install a larger system and use it for your watering needs.

• Take advantage of nature’s insulation. Plant trees and shrubs in strategic locations to help shield your home from sun and wind.

Brightly lit kitchen with stainless steel appliances
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash

Shrink your lifestyle and shrink your emissions

• In general, the smaller a home, the less energy it takes to heat and cool it. So it follows that downsizing is an effective way to reduce emissions. Due to steadily growing home sizes, the average newly built home in the U.S. is now about 2,430 square feet. If we were all to halve that generous square footage, our carbon emissions would easily follow suit, simply from reducing the amount of energy it takes to heat and cool our homes

• Think about renting out an unused room, or your basement. This will help with the bills and reduce your emissions per capita.

Just as there are myriad ways that our homes are contributing to rising global CO2 emissions, there are just as many—and more!— approaches we can take to limit those emissions. 

How we live, what we eat and the examples we show our friends and family—these are all opportunities to put the planet first. Even something as small as unplugging that air fryer you haven’t used in ages can make a dent.

If you fold these habits into your daily life as you see fit, you won’t just be wistfully wishing for a greener future—you’ll be an active participant in it. 

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This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

Jessica Wei
Written By
Jessica Wei

Jessica Wei is a writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in the Guardian, GQ, and the Independent. She'll sneak an anchovy into any dish she's cooking.

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