March 3, 2024

Carbon footprints can be difficult to understand

We don’t believe it. Just as we don’t want people to think that recycling more is the best solution to combat climate change, we don’t want them to believe that more orange juice is the answer to the obesity epidemic.

Recycling and turning off lights are important steps in creating a sustainable society. However, on an individual level, they do not have the same impact as reducing meat consumption, driving, and air travel. When it comes to reducing carbon footprints, many well-intentioned individuals make bad choices.

Air travel and recycling

We surveyed students from the University of British Columbia, as well as a sample of North Americans recruited through the online platform Mturk, to see if they were able to correctly identify the actions that could be taken by each individual in order to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

The participants in our survey were more educated, more liberal, and more motivated to take climate-friendly actions than the general public. However, since we wanted to know the perceptions of those who are at least somewhat motivated to do so, it was the best group to interview.

We asked the participants in the study to identify the most effective way they could reduce emissions that contribute to climate change. Most participants referred to driving a little less, which is a high-impact action. Others referred more to recycling.

Few people mentioned that air travel can account for a large portion of a person’s carbon footprint. A return flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong can produce over 4,000 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents. The importance of political actions (like voting), which are necessary to bring about large-scale structural changes, was also underrated.

Common Myths

We then asked participants to classify 15 actions into low, medium, or high impact (common being less than 1% of an individual’s carbon footprint and high being more than 5%).

The actions involving vehicles owned by individuals were deemed important in reducing greenhouse gases. Only 32 percent of the sample correctly identified the switch from plastic bags to canvas bags as a low-impact action. Reduced air travel and reduced meat consumption were incorrectly placed in the bottom half of suggested activities.

According to past research on “the availability heuristic” (a mental shortcut in which people place extra emphasis on examples that come to mind quickly), people may have focused on choices that cause harms that are easily visible or actions that are symbolic of environmentalism without being related to climate. We found that littering does not create any emissions, yet it is perceived as if it were a flight with high pollution across the Pacific Ocean.

Focus on what really matters.

We asked the participants to compare different sets of actions. For example, how long would it take to buy food without packaging to save as many emissions as if you stopped eating meat for a year? About half of the participants answered one to two years. The correct answer is at least ten years.

Even people who are very concerned about climate change were unable to make accurate trade-offs. This is true for those who recycle to fly on vacation or for those trying to maximize their carbon budget.

Read more: 5 ways families can help tackle climate change

These misunderstandings matter. People who understand that meat has a large climate impact are more willing to eat less of it. In a study of Swedes who had given up or reduced their air travel, many cited the realization that flying occupied a large part of their “carbon budget” as a motivator for their choice.

We want people not to waste time and money on useless distractions but instead focus on important actions. We also want people to adopt low-carbon lifestyles because those who do tend to support policies that force everyone else to reduce their pollution.

Ezra Klein explains that we should change the culture to include more meat, bigger SUVs, and other things while also trying to change our policies. “We will not vote for anything that makes us feel bad as a people.”

Changes in lifestyle and more

Critic has been leveled at the term “carbon footprint” because the oil industry used it to shift responsibility away from themselves and onto consumers. It is not necessary to abandon all efforts to change our lifestyles just because you believe climate hawks must oppose any tactics from major polluters.

Some large companies are concerned that lifestyle changes will have a negative impact on their bottom line. Before the pandemic threatened the entire industry, the airlines took careful steps to manage lost business due to a growing sense of guilt (flight shame) among people about the carbon footprint associated with air travel.

These results show that even if you believe that lifestyle changes are a distraction to political action and that there is peer-reviewed evidence that supports this, people still place disproportionate importance on trivial lifestyle choices and do not vote for climate policies.

What can we do now? We can experiment with ways to encourage lifestyle changes while increasing policy support. We should use resources that do not take away from the political action. This could include projects on university campuses, corporate offices, and grade schools. Twelve-year-olds cannot vote but can learn how to prepare a sustainable dish and what it is.

Read more: Flight shaming: how to spread the campaign that made Swedes give up flying for good.

In one study, for example, participants were given feedback on their food purchases in terms of “lightbulb minutes”: how much greenhouse gases are produced by one minute of lightbulb use. This led to a positive shift in their consumption choices. Similarly, people booking their flights could be told the fraction of their annual carbon budget that a single trip will use up.

These methods are useful because they draw attention to climate change but do not rely on an individual’s ability to master the complex subject of carbon footprints.

Youth, in particular, are more likely to be concerned about individual actions. We could use this as an opportunity for lifestyle changes that matter and to increase support for tough climate policies, which are long overdue.

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