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Americans try to shift into 'carbon neutral'

To combat global warming, many try to remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they add to it.

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Are you living "carbon neutral" – or better yet, "carbon negative"? Have you gone on a "carbon diet"? Are you shrinking your "carbon footprint" on the earth or aiming for a "net zero" lifestyle?

If so, you've got lots of company, including celebrities, sports teams, airlines, moviemakers, tour operators, and at least one college. They're all trying to make sure that they're removing at least as much carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide, or CO2) from the atmosphere as they add from heating their homes or businesses or traveling by car or airplane.

Americans have been shutting off lights, stuffing insulation into attics, and carpooling to save gas at least since President Jimmy Carter pulled on his cardigan and talked to the nation about saving energy nearly three decades ago.

In the 21st century, though, the conservation message has changed: While fossil fuels such as oil and coal continue to dwindle and become more expensive, burning them now has an almost certain link to the warming of the planet's atmosphere, creating a rapidly changing climate that could wreak havoc.

People are eager to help, and going "carbon neutral" has become a popular answer. The New Oxford American Dictionary recently proclaimed "carbon neutral" as its Word of the Year for 2006. "The increasing use of the word 'carbon neutral' reflects not just the greening of our culture, but the greening of our language," says editor in chief Erin McKean. "When you see first-graders trying to make their classrooms 'carbon neutral,' you know the word has become mainstream."

Polls back up the editors' choice. Americans now say climate change is the country's most pressing environmental problem, according to a recent survey from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Just three years ago, it ranked only sixth on a list of 10 environmental concerns.

Becoming "carbon neutral" involves two steps, environmentalists point out. The first is to reduce carbon emissions through familiar conservation measures: replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent bulbs, using public transit, and so forth. Many online "carbon calculators" help individuals or businesses assess how much carbon they are emitting.

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