Quitting Carbon Is Easier Than You Think
Sometimes all it takes to put gears in motion is the right conversation.
This seems especially true in the realm of climate action: we crave examples, proof points, illuminated paths to show us what is possible. Alone, the world dwarfs us. As a collective, something else happens.
When I met Cooper Marcus, I’d been professing my intention to switch to an induction stovetop for some time, bookmarking dreamy induction ranges way out of our budget. As soon as we can afford it, I’d say, we’re in. (How could you not, with the induction-compatible stainless steel Proclamation Duo as your go-to??)
I’ll be the first to admit that I favor dramatic, all-or-nothing gestures, but our conversation reminded me that incremental changes can be just as effective at moving you toward your greener goals—especially if one of those goals is a low-hanging fruit like cooking with induction.
Cut to: the portable induction cooktop now perched alongside my dormant six-burner gas range. It rocks. I feel better. I’ve still got my dreamy bookmarks, but for a hundred bucks, I’ve got progress.
Cooper heads up QuitCarbon, a Bay Area-based service that creates custom “quitting plans” for anyone looking to phase out gas-powered appliances. It’s a one-stop braintrust that will show you where to start, which products are worth the plunge, and what to know about finding the right help for the job. (They’ll even match you with contractors they trust, or gut-check current bids from those you’ve already met.) For free.
“We hear from lots of people who really want to do it, are motivated and knowledgeable, but in the absence of even a very basic plan, they feel impaired by all the complexity and remaining uncertainty around whether they’re doing the right thing at the right time in the right way," he says. "A simple plan makes such a difference.”
Read on for Cooper’s take on the most effective ways to reduce your home’s footprint, and what little changes mean for an abundant future.
Tell me a bit about how you came to this work.
I’ve been a lifelong environmentally-minded person. I was a bit of an emotional child; I recall crying myself to sleep over the plight of the whales, that kind of thing. My mother was a professor of architecture and landscape architecture at UC Berkeley. From a young age, the built environment—the designed environment—has been part of my family. Books hanging around the house, magazines we’d get, even the vacations we’d go on. We’d go to co-houses in Scandinavia, and my mom would take pictures of me and my sister playing on the playground for her next book, that kind of thing.
So I’ve had a connection between the two—the natural environment, and the built environment—and throughout my career and my life, I’ve tried to engage with them both.
A few years ago, I was starting to work on plans for a modest remodel of our home in San Francisco. I didn’t know at the time that electric appliances were a viable replacement for gas—I thought gas was clean, “natural,” all that. Rewiring America was a big part of my reeducation; it became apparent that to get our remodel electrified, we were going to need to engage a consultant, since our architects and contractors were not familiar enough to feel comfortable doing it on their own.
The plan alone cost thousands of dollars, before any hammer had been swung. Electric home appliances are not crazy, bleeding-edge technology—they’re very common in other parts of the world, and even other parts of the country. Over a quarter of all homes in America are already fully electric, so this isn’t a crazy idea.
But, going from intending to do it to actually doing it was complicated and expensive and confusing. When I talked with friends, all the ones who had tried it had the same experience. What people needed was their own individual “quitting” plan to quit carbon. We’ve been working towards it for the last couple of years, and now we’re happy to make these plans available to everybody—just like I wished I’d had when I hired that consultant.
How did you set about becoming that resource?
It started out with a lot of conversations, mostly on the homeowner side. I had some conversations with renters, too. I was mostly seeking to learn how people were thinking about their home systems, how knowledgeable they were about the climate impact of burning fossil gas, how they thought about replacement. Do most people think about keeping things until they’re used up, and then I put in a new one? Or are people willing to consider making a change for the better, even though the machine they’re replacing may not technically be “finished?” It was lots of interviews, lots of reading of academic research.
What I learned was: we don’t need a lot. There are approaches, particularly for new construction and major renovations, that involve a lot of analysis using complicated software tools. But when we’re talking about an existing home with existing systems that has been occupied for a while, we can learn a lot just by looking at what’s there: how much gas has been used, what size water heater and furnace is already in place. From there, you just need to provide enough guidance or recommendation to the occupants that doesn’t depend on expensive analysis, but is good enough to get them feeling comfortable enough to move forward.
I think that’s the very core of what we learned—it’s not a technological challenge, and it’s often not too much of a financial challenge, since people expect to replace or service their appliances fairly frequently. There are contractors willing to do it. It was mostly about individuals feeling comfortable with the change.
A lot of that comes down to knowledge, which we provide, and a friend—someone who’s in this with you. A quitting buddy. Somebody called us a “decarbonization doula” the other day.
What have you found to be the most common starting point for people looking to reduce their carbon footprint? Where are people most surprised to see an impact?
Many folks come to this with a fair amount of awareness around solar and batteries. One place they’re surprised is when we explain to them that while those are great, if your goal is to address climate change, they’re actually not that helpful.
Our electricity supply in Northern California, and increasingly throughout the United States, is already very clean. So if you go from very clean electricity coming from your utilities to slightly cleaner electricity coming from your roof, you haven’t really made a change in your home’s carbon pollution.
On the other hand, folks are consistently surprised about their water heater and their furnace. It’s easy to imagine a gas stove as some significant portion of your home’s pollution, but it’s not—it rarely exceeds a few percentage points of your home’s total climate impact. Most of it comes from a water heater, or furnace. In our mild climate here, the majority of it is usually the water heater.
People have very different motivations for getting to a place where they want to quit carbon. Some people are concerned about the health impacts of their gas stove, particularly on kids. The science is sound, there: we know, based on some research out of Australia, that having a gas stove in your home is equivalent to living with a smoker. For very little money, you can buy one of these countertop induction units and you can start to make a difference in small ways.
Some folks are really motivated by the climate crisis, and that’s great. It’s a huge challenge, and every one of us needs to take individual action in a significant fashion—like getting rid of all your gas appliances in the next few years.
Other people are as much motivated by their feelings of unhappiness or distrust of their utilities, and they want to stick it to the utilities by generating their own power and using it in their home. And that’s fine too.
The key is: you don’t have to do everything all at once. Many people need to start with electrical work in the home, which doesn’t involve switching any machines, it’s just about getting ready to. Some people have an impending crisis, like the water heater is already 14 years old, or it has a slow leak. In that case, addressing it before it becomes an emergency is really important.
Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to electrify in a hurry. Doing things in the order that works for you—with the right amount of spending and effort over time, in the context of a plan—is often really important to help ensure that when you do one thing, you don’t close off options for another. For example: without a plan, you might put in too large of an electric water heater that consumes too much of your home’s limited supply, and then when you go to do your stove or furnace, you don’t have enough electricity left. But if you have a plan, all those puzzle pieces fit together, even if you haven’t yet assembled them.
A plan helps you feel like you know where you’re going. Just like when you’re going on a big journey, you want an itinerary. You could just wing it, and some brave people do, but for most, knowing where you’re generally headed really helps you take the first step in getting there.
Has this work changed your overall perspective on climate news?
It has. I see a lot of hopeful signs that we’re going in the right direction. The California Air Resources Board just decided to start a process that will likely result in gas appliances being banned by 2030. There are a lot of incentives, rebates, educational programs, at all different levels—local, regional, state, federal—all pointing toward electrifying homes. Increasingly, homeowners are aware of the possibilities, and have some preference for it.
We still face challenges; there can be supply chain challenges with the equipment, contractors being comfortable with the work. It is a big change in the industry. But I have a lot of hope.
The difference you can make when you electrify your home is really significant. Especially in homes where people are driving less, it’s the single biggest thing a homeowner can do to reduce their climate impact. But it’s also relatively easy to address. Not as easy as it needs to be, but with help from folks like us and conscientious contractors and various programs that motivate and encourage and provide incentives, it’s really achievable.
You can think back to other pro-environment changes that were made at a governmental level, like the phasing out of dangerous hydro-fluorocarbons or the switch from leaded gasoline. Those were decisions that were made high up in government and implemented by a few big companies. The rest of us just did our stuff. This isn’t one of those times. This is something where every single one of us has to take individual action, and that does make it a bit daunting. But at least it’s action that we’ve all already been taking. Everybody that owns a home has the responsibility of maintaining the systems within it; water heaters and furnaces and stoves and clothes dryers all get replaced all the time, and have been for decades. So this idea that a machine in your home needs to be replaced, it’s not a new idea.
The newness is what you’re replacing it with, and why. Not a new activity, just a new, and vastly better, outcome.
When we talk about electrifying homes, we’re not just talking about climate impact. We’re also generally just talking about having a better home. Homes that are more comfortable, more efficient, cheaper to operate, you can turn your heat up higher in the winter and A/C lower in the summer. You can boil pasta water faster. These homes work better for their inhabitants. And that’s extra exciting, that we’re not in a world of sacrifice, we’re talking about a future of abundance, and that’s a great place to be heading.
Back in the 70s, when we had to conserve and our hands were forced by this relatively short-term oil crisis, we didn’t really have great options. There weren’t effective EVs, you couldn’t just put in a heat pump and stop burning gas. It was a tough time, and our response was probably okay, but a lot of folks remember that and imagine that a response to all crises or all environmental challenges must be one of sacrifice. Luckily, this time, it ain’t!
Getting folks into that mindset is a little challenging, but those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid are getting good at sharing this optimistic vision of our fully-electrified future.