According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have 12 years before irreversible climate change occurs. That means that if the United States wants to avoid this situation, everyone reading this article (and many more) must decarbonize as quickly as possible. And we must do this with the least negative effect on the economy and our daily lives as possible. Can we even afford it? In a word, maybe.

Let’s focus for the time being on residential energy use, and ignore the changes that will be required for industry, commercial buildings, and for-profit transit. As long as a homeowner plans ahead of time, and selects premium, efficient equipment at the right times, it would be possible to make the switch to near-zero carbon consumption over the span of 12 years.

However, without constant vigilance, sound planning, and implementation as household products die and are replaced, the full cost of decarbonization will go up dramatically because the cost to decarbonize would no longer be incremental.

For example, suppose I am forced to replace my water heater sometime in the next 12 years. Replacing it using the carbon-reduction approach would mean buying a heat-pump water heater. What if I decided not to buy the heat-pump water heater, but a more conventional (and cheaper) model that didn’t do anything to lower my carbon footprint?

Ten years later, I might realize, “Whoops! I should have decarbonized my home because climate change is happening.” Now, the water heater with a lifetime of 15-plus years would have to be decommissioned early, thus incurring the full cost of the heat-pump water heater rather than just the incremental cost. This additional cost makes it less likely that I would actually implement a decarbonization strategy because it is less financially viable.

Adding up the costs of incremental change

Assuming I start today with a decarbonization goal in mind, what would it cost to reduce my daily home carbon consumption dramatically over the span of 12 years? I have a suburban, 3,000-square-foot house built in the early 1990s. It was pretty much an energy hog when I got it, so much so that the previous owner vacated the premises partly to escape the high utility bills and discomfort.

So how much will it cost, in a relatively expensive area, to retrofit my energy usage to near zero-carbon? Upon doing some energy modeling using my 10 years of experience in the industry, here is roughly what it would take in incremental costs to achieve a decarbonized, climate-friendly, residential home and transportation (replacement upon equipment failure).

Single Family in Suburbs

Single Family in Rural

Townhouse in Suburbs

Townhouse in Urban

Apartment in Urban

Conditioned space (sq. ft.)

3900

1500

2400

1200

800

Attic air-sealing and R-60 attic insulation –

$3,400

$3,400

$2,500

$2,100

$300

High-efficiency LED light bulbs

$250

$100

$200

$100

$75

Tier 1 CEE appliances (most efficient Energy Star appliances)

$1,500

$1,500

$1,500

$1,500

$1,500

Heat-pump water heater (EF* greater than 2.5)

$2,500

$2,500

$2,500

$2,500

$2,500

Encapsulated (air-sealed) ducts

$2,500

$2,000

$2,000

$1,500

$0

Inverter-driven, high-efficiency heat pump (20+ SEER**, 11+ HSPF**)

$10,000

$7,500

$7,500

$7,500

$5,000

Good performance dual-pane windows or low-e storm windows

$4,250

$2,880

$2,880

$2,160

$1,920

Home air-sealing (baseboards, penetrations, walls, foundation)

$2,500

$2,000

$2,000

$1,500

$500

Transportation (electric vehicles and charger)

$33,000

$33,000

$38,000

$21,000

N/A***

Rooftop solar

$26,900

$16,100

$15,600

$11,100

N/A***

Total

$86,800

$70,980

$74,680

$50,960

$11,795

Annual cost (assuming 12 years)

$7,233

$5,915

$6,223

$4,247

$983

Annual defrayed utility costs

$2,500

$1,700

$1,700

$1,000

$324

Annual defrayed transportation costs

$1,000

$1,000

$1,000

$500

0

Net Annual Cost

$3,733

$3,215

$3,523

$2,747

$659

Net Monthly Cost

$311

$268

$294

$229

$55

*Efficiency Factor (EF) is a measure of hot water heating efficiency

**Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) and Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) are measures of cooling and heating efficiency respectively.

*** Costs for solar panels in urban apartment units were not included, due to the limited energy density of available roof space relative to the energy usage of all the floors of the building. Urban areas where buildings are over 10 stories tall are generally going to have to rely on the greening of the grid and public transit in addition to the improved efficiency of the buildings to reach net-zero carbon. Not part of this scope.

If someone were buying a new house, they’d likely be paying less of this cost, as some of these measures—such as attic air sealing, high-efficiency bulbs, air-sealed ducts, and good quality windows—may be required by code. However, with an existing house and existing cars, people have to make up for previously inefficient construction practices.

Working change into the budget

When the median national salary is $47,000 per year, that’s effectively $35,000 after taxes (assuming a 25% tax rate), or $2,900 per month. That money must cover all expenses—housing, food, healthcare, transportation, kids’ activities, you-name-it. Whether this household can afford the extra expense of decarbonization would depend on location (urban, suburban, and home type), income, and the number of wage-earning people there are living there.

It is essentially between 2% and 11% of what the average wage-earner’s pay. People who are earning median wages or less would probably feel that they do not have enough monthly budget flexibility for an extra $55 to $311 outflow.

Some of these costs will come down over time, especially electric cars. Batteries are the most expensive part of the car, and the industry is rapidly changing and improving. Maybe with the right financing options, including 20-year paybacks instead of 12 years, and government incentives, it might allow for getting the carbon benefit now but paying less monthly for a longer period of time. Cue some happy bank executives.

At the end of the day, people like me who want to slow or halt climate change are asking everyone to substitute some current costs with another one. If one were implementing such a plan on their own, or taking the situation a bit further to a government-imposed carbon tax on fossil fuel, people are first going to scale back their leisure and entertainment activities before they start cutting back on necessities.

However, if a family is lower on the economic ladder, they may not be taking any of these steps toward decarbonization, thereby making the cost of decarbonizing the full cost rather than incremental cost. These families are less likely to have any entertainment budget to dip into in the first place.

Wealthy people may buy smaller boats or fewer boats to defray additional energy costs, or they may very quickly scale up their energy efficiency and renewable energy purchasing. If the ultimate aim is to make decarbonizing as widespread as possible across the entire economy, and I argue that it would, then people on one side of this median income divide are going to need more incentives to implement this plan.

So, yes, with the right choices, the right incentives from the government, the right life situation, it could be possible for the median American to afford climate change solutions. In other words, maybe.

David Kaiser trained as a mechanical engineer and has spent his 14-year career in building energy efficiency, including energy modeling, contracting for Energy Star for New Homes, HERS Rater, LEED for Homes Green Rater, energy auditor on residential, multifamily, and commercial buildings, and now as a green and energy code permit reviewer for Washington, D.C. He asked that editing credit be given to Katherine Kaiser, PhD.