Part of the July 2022 issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Renters are often afterthoughts when we talk about climate solutions.
Buildings in the United States make up 40 percent of the country’s total energy consumption every year, which means making them more climate-friendly would go a long way. When a homeowner — especially one with a single-family home and maybe even a bit of land — decides to reduce their building’s impact on the environment, they have plenty of options. They can install solar panels on their roofs, replace their old HVAC systems with heat pumps, or rip open their walls to better insulate their homes. And they can take advantage of funding programs from the government or their utility companies to help pay for those changes.
Renters, by contrast, can do very little. Most leases tend to prohibit all but the most minor adjustments to an apartment or house; federal programs for both climate preparedness and disaster relief tend to prioritize homeowners; and landlords often don’t have any incentive to invest in improvements to profitable properties, especially if they don’t live in the building or pay any utility bills.
That can be frustrating, especially when renters are poised to be hit especially hard as climate change leads to worse extreme weather. “Property is nine-tenths of the law, says the cliche, so renters are screwed,” said Carlos Martín, project director of the Remodeling Futures Program at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. But, Martín continued, lots of renters want to see climate-focused improvements to their homes. So in a fit of existential ennui, I decided to find out what, if anything, renters can do to reduce their impact on the environment.
The answers can be divided into two categories: the changes you can make yourself, which are easier to pull off but would have a smaller environmental impact, and the harder work of pushing for bigger changes in your building, your community, and policy writ large.
As with climate change more broadly, there is no single, easy, satisfying answer, and this will be more of a signpost steering you in the right direction than a comprehensive guidebook of the winding trails that make up the world of climate solutions. Some of the individual choices we make can have more of an impact than others, but real climate action has to come through structural change. I’m going to get into both.
Think about how you can change your space
As a renter, you don’t have much control over the physical structure of your living space, whether it’s a shoebox-sized apartment in a big city or a suburban townhome. But there are a few things you do have control over: how your home looks and feels in the day-to-day, what goes in it, and what comes out. So let’s start there.
If you, rather than your landlord, pay your electricity bills, that’s the first place to look for changes you can make. While rooftop solar might not be a viable option for you, community solar could be a good alternative.
Community solar works on a simple premise: a solar array, or “garden,” is set up somewhere in the vicinity of your community — depending on location, this could be anywhere from down the road to another part of your state — and customers in the region can sign up to join the project, typically for no additional fees. In return, the solar garden sends clean energy to the grid equivalent to your monthly use, and you receive a credit on your utility bill for that energy. Then, instead of paying your utility company for the energy you consume, you pay the solar garden for the energy it generated on your behalf.
Because of how cheap solar energy is becoming, that tends to mean you end up paying less money for your electricity; many community solar customers see bill savings in the 10 to 15 percent range, unlike utility-run “green pricing” programs that tend to charge a premium for using renewable energy sources.
“We really think it’s a great solution to helping the climate crisis and expanding access, letting everyone tap into all the benefits of solar energy,” said Laurel Passera, senior director of policy and regulatory affairs at the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a group of community solar-focused businesses and nonprofits.
While the energy produced by community solar gardens won’t necessarily be delivered directly to everyone who owns a share in the project — the power just goes into the grid, and there’s no way to tell which electrons in a power line came from which source — it allows utilities to use less fossil fuels, especially during peak demand times. That means fewer greenhouse gases are produced by power generation.
Renters who live in one of the 22 states that have community solar legislation on the books (or Washington, DC) can sign up for a community solar garden by going to websites like PowerMarket or simply typing “community solar near me” into a Google search. The process is very easy — “It’s like subscribing to Netflix,” Passera told me. Sometimes there’s a waitlist, but spots tend to open up quickly.
Once you’ve taken care of how energy gets into your home, it’s time to start thinking about how your home uses that energy. Energy efficiency isn’t the sexiest topic in the world, but it’s important both in terms of how much energy you use and how comfortable you are inside your house.
If you own a large appliance in your apartment that hasn’t been replaced in many years, like a refrigerator or window AC, consider upgrading to a newer, more energy-efficient version, or talking to your landlord if they own those appliances. A new AC unit, for example, will do a better job cooling your home and use less energy to do it. And while renters might not be able to rip open their walls to add insulation (that’s something your landlord should be doing, which we’ll get to shortly), there are a few DIY solutions you can try instead.
“Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent of heat loss in a home occurs through the walls,” said William Higgs, a community resource coordinator at Elevate, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works on energy efficiency and equity programs. Another 25 to 30 percent of heat is lost through windows, and Higgs said renters can make a number of small improvements to keep both hot and cool air inside, which would reduce your overall energy use.
Among other things, you can hang up thermal curtains, which are specially made to prevent heated or cooled air from escaping through glass; use rope caulk to seal air leaks around windows; or apply foam weatherstripping tape around door frames to prevent drafts. These are relatively inexpensive fixes: thermal curtains cost around $20 per set, and a 10-foot roll of foam tape typically runs in the $5 to $8 range.
As for what goes out of your apartment, consider composting. Food makes up almost 22 percent of all the waste generated in the country, and 24 percent of the waste that goes into landfills. When it gets there, that food and other organic products start emitting methane — an incredibly potent greenhouse gas. Landfills are one of the largest sources of methane in the United States, “so we really need to be doing a better job of keeping these materials out of landfills and incinerators,” said Linda Bilsens Brolis, senior project manager for the Composting for Community Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that advocates for local businesses and grassroots organizations.
Most landfills create zero-oxygen, or anaerobic, environments, and food scraps rotting under those conditions generate methane. A well-maintained composting system, on the other hand, is an oxygenated environment, and the microbes that produce methane aren’t active in the presence of oxygen. “There’s no good reason food scraps and other organic materials couldn’t be composted,” said Bilsens Brolis.
If there’s a composting project in your community, either through curbside pickup or easily accessible drop-off points, that’s the first place to start. Collect your food scraps (and if you have a yard, any organic yard waste) so they can be composted — you can, among other things, use an outside bin if you’ve got the yard space for it, or put your food scraps in a compostable bag in your freezer until you drop them off. If there isn’t any composting in your community, you can even consider taking the next step by setting up a worm-based composting system in your home, though that’s a bit more involved. “It’s kind of like having a pet,” said Bilsens Brolis. “You have to keep an eye on them, but they’ll eat your food scraps.”
Finally, if you’re looking for one more way to reduce your environmental impact, you could sign up to your utility’s demand response program, in which your utility company can ask you to raise or lower your thermostat to help reduce the energy load on the grid. This could help reduce the utility company’s reliance on peaker plants, which are usually inefficient gas or coal-powered plants that are only brought online when the grid is stressed — but it also means you could end up feeling less comfortable than, say, a homeowner with a well-insulated house. “I always suggest that as last among the list of suggestions because I don’t think the problem is the renter or their behavior,” said Martín.
Then look beyond your walls
Climate change, as my colleague Rebecca Leber wrote in June, is all about power. That extends to how renters experience it. The large structural changes that are needed to make our existing buildings more energy-efficient and resilient can only be done with the approval of the people who own those buildings, which means they need to be motivated to do it.
The first step, said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of Uprose, a New York-based climate justice group, is to simply try talking to your landlord. “I know a lot of people demonize landlords,” Yeampierre said, “and they’re a mix — some of them only care about money. But some of them want to support their property; they want it to last over time.”
If you have a personal relationship with your landlord, talk to them about how improvements to the building, like installing energy-efficient appliances, better insulation, or even solar panels on the roof, will benefit both you and them, especially if they live in the same building. Proactive choices made now will reduce maintenance costs in the future, especially as climate change leads to more extreme weather. “If they are not aware that [issues like] extreme winds, extreme heat, or mold are threats to the physical infrastructure of their property, then they’re not good businesspeople,” said Yeampierre. “Their property value is going to go down, so being able to work with tenants to create buildings that address all those threats is in everyone’s best interest.”
Some cities, like New York, have laws that technically prevent landlords from passing on the costs of those upgrades to their tenants for good, but it’s difficult to fight that by yourself. If you have a more truculent landlord — someone who isn’t very good at upkeep, or who relies on an unresponsive property management company — try reaching out to a local tenants’ rights or climate justice group for support. “I think it’s important for people to know that they’re not alone,” said Yeampierre.
Relatedly, talk to your neighbors! This can be scary, especially in big cities where talking to your neighbors can be something like piercing a bubble that we all, silently, have agreed to respect. But there’s strength in numbers. By talking to those around you, said Noah Patton, housing policy analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, you get to understand how widespread the issues you’re facing are, and you can present a united front when reaching out to tenants’ rights organizations or landlords who might not be willing to work with you alone.
Organizing your fellow tenants can be just as harrowing as organizing a labor union, but it can go a long way toward getting an uncooperative landlord to work with you. During the early days of the pandemic, for example, some tenants in New York banded together to prevent evictions before the national eviction moratorium was put into place (Disclosure: I lived in one of the buildings mentioned in that story many years ago, and remain friends with one of the tenant organizers). Again, reach out to your local tenants’ rights group for assistance. If your conversation with your landlord is motivated primarily by climate concerns, you could try pushing your landlord to adopt something like a “green lease,” which provides a framework for bringing existing buildings to net zero energy use while benefiting landlords and tenants alike.
At a larger level, find ways to advocate for policy changes that will benefit not just you and your neighbors, but also your community at large, like unlocking funding for retrofits of existing buildings or legislation that allows for community solar programs in the states that don’t already have them.
“Folks in power need to hear from renters so much more,” said Shina Robinson, policy coordinator at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, a California-based environmental justice organization. Policymakers often tend to be homeowners and sometimes even landlords, Robinson said, and it’s important that renters, either individually or working with local organizations, make their voices heard.
Housing is, admittedly, an intractable issue wrapped up in issues of race and class, and we’re only scratching the surface. But you can make a difference. Learn how to build your power; the steps you take today, even if they may not feel very steady, can help create a more just climate future for all.
Neel Dhanesha covers technology and climate change for Vox and Recode. He was previously an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine and an assistant producer at Radiolab.