North Carolina Family Takes Carbon Challenge Like many people, Scott and Claudia Sheppard feel a sense of foreboding about global warming. They and their two daughters are taking steps to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions — and they wanted to see how they measure up.
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North Carolina Family Takes Carbon Challenge

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North Carolina Family Takes Carbon Challenge

North Carolina Family Takes Carbon Challenge

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


We've been exploring some of your questions about global warming as part of our series Climate Connections with National Geographic. Now to one family that's already trying to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, NPR's David Kestenbaum spent some time with them at their home in North Carolina.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Scott and Claudia Sheppard live in a modest-sized house in a wooded area a few miles from downtown Chapel Hill. They have two adorable kids.

ANJA SHEPPARD: Hi. My name is Anja.

KESTENBAUM: Anja is six, Nadia, aged eight, also a dog.


CLAUDIA SHEPPARD: Sammy, come up.

KESTENBAUM: And an old piano they just picked up.


KESTENBAUM: What makes them a little unusual is that they are trying to do what all those countries were supposed to do under the Kyoto Accord, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Claudia has tried to get her church involved.

SHEPPARD: Our church had a fast from carbon for Lent.

KESTENBAUM: A fast from carbon?


KESTENBAUM: So instead of giving up chocolate...

SHEPPARD: You would...

KESTENBAUM: gave up carbon.

SHEPPARD: Right. You would hang up your laundry to dry or something like.

KESTENBAUM: And, yup, the laundry's out on the back deck. The kids say the clothes get stiff but they're in favor of saving energy. Nadia can tell you all about the new light bulb.

NADIA SHEPPARD: I'm in the kitchen and right above me, there is a compact four-inch light bulb.

KESTENBAUM: Those are compact fluorescent light bulbs.

SHEPPARD: That is better than the regular ones.

KESTENBAUM: The family does own a station wagon, but when Scott gets home from work, he's driving their other car, a little Ford Focus.

SCOTT SHEPPARD: You know, and it's less convenient to have a smaller car but I use it for commuting. And then also we swap off when Claudia has to drive a further distance than I do.

KESTENBAUM: The Sheppards wanted to know how they were doing carbon wise, and so did we, so we invited Doug Crawford-Brown, who directs the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He arrives in a blue Prius Hybrid, though he used to own a Jaguar. One thing he's immediately impressed by is that they haven't cut down the trees.

DOUG CRAWFORD: Well, you know, I see trees around. I see a lot of shade and given that we're in the South here, and cooling cost are a lot higher than heating cost. That's a big first step, too, is just not getting pounded by the sunlight.

KESTENBAUM: He gets the tour of the house. The Sheppards' home, they put in a low-flow showerhead, installed a blanket around the water heater, bought an energy-efficient refrigerator and resisted buying a larger house. Claudia says she also tries to buy local food that doesn't have to be shipped in trucks. Unfortunately, the strawberries on the kitchen counter came all the way from California. Doug Crawford-Brown says all these things are good, though, some count more than others.

CRAWFORD: If I had to pick, you know, where the big savings are going to be in a person's life in terms of CO2, it's not where you buy your strawberries that it's going to buy your way in heaven, I would say. But there's no doubt that there's a lot of CO2 that does go out transporting food all around the world.

KESTENBAUM: Here are the big things, he says, if you were to draw a pie chart about half of the typical family's carbon emissions come from heating and cooling the house, maybe a quarter comes from transportation driving around, and the final quarter from lights, refrigerators and electrical stuff. So given all the things the Sheppards are doing, how much carbon dioxide are they producing? Doug Crawford-Brown sits down at the kitchen table where the family has collected their electric bill.

CRAWFORD: Can somebody want to operate this calculator for me?


CRAWFORD: You want to do that? I need to have 800 times 12.

SHEPPARD: Uhm, 9,600.

KESTENBAUM: They get a break on electricity because the utility company, Duke Energy, uses half nuclear power, which doesn't emit carbon. He also adds up the auto mileage, tallies the natural gas heating bill. In the end, he estimates, they produce about 14 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year - enough to fill a volume of maybe nine hot-air balloons, which is good.

CRAWFORD: You're down 40 percent below what the average person in North Carolina is and I would say, for example, if everybody in the state of North Carolina were at their level as a family in terms of emitting CO2, I think that's a pretty good goal for the next 20 years.

KESTENBAUM: But there is also some bad news. Doug Crawford-Brown has one more question.

CRAWFORD: What would you guess is the mileage that you fly in a year?

KESTENBAUM: Claudia says they take one long flight a year, either to see her family in Germany or to California. They also make a short trip to see Scott's family in New Orleans and Scott flies a few times a year for business. The numbers go in the calculator and...

CRAWFORD: Drum roll.


CRAWFORD: And then you can keel over, when you see the number.

SHEPPARD: That's terrible.

SHEPPARD: Yeah, 13.

CRAWFORD: How much?


CRAWFORD: Okay. 12.7 tons per year.

KESTENBAUM: Those flights have essentially doubled the amount of carbon the Sheppards put into the air. Scott Sheppard goes to check the distance to Germany on a map with a ruler but there's no escaping it. You can walk to the grocery store, but flying to, say, the West Coast is about the same as driving all those miles. They add up.

CRAWFORD: As much as...

SHEPPARD: It's hugely surprising, yeah...

CRAWFORD: Oh, yeah.

SHEPPARD: Absolutely. It's hugely surprising.

SHEPPARD: It's bad, right? But, you know, we...

SHEPPARD: What are you going to, you know, if you have a family, like, halfway across the world, you know, you have to see them sometimes. So I mean, I'll make all kinds of sacrifices elsewhere, but how would I change my flying?


SHEPPARD: I mean, I can't swim there, you know?

CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. I know. I know.

KESTENBAUM: David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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