Misunderstandings in the relative efficacy of pro-environmental behaviors may have important consequences for climate mitigation efforts, according to a new study. The findings find that people tend to underestimate greenhouse gas emissions associated with behaviors like air travel and meat consumption.
Recycling and turning off the lights might be good steps towards a sustainable society, but they are not as important for the climate on an individual basis as driving or changing out diets. Many end up making poor choices to reduce their carbon footprint due to a lack of sufficient information.
Seth Wynes, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, surveyed a group of students and a sample of North Americans recruited through an online platform, to establish whether they could identify correctly actions that truly reduce their individual greenhouse gas emissions.
“Our participants were more educated and more liberal than the general population but since we want to understand the perceptions of people who are at least a little motivated to engage in pro-climate actions, this is actually the right group of people to survey,” explained Wynes in a recent post.
The researchers asked participants to describe the single most effective action they could take to reduce the emissions that cause climate change. Many said driving less, which indeed helps to reduce emissions, and also recycling, which doesn’t do much in terms of avoiding a further temperature increase.
Surprisingly only a few mentioned air travel, which actually can account for a larger portion of the carbon footprint of an individual. A return flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong generates over 4,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, for example. Political action to achieve structural change also wasn’t highlighted much.
Wynes and his team then gave participants a list of 15 actions which they had to categorize as low, medium, or high impact, with low being less than 1% of a person’s carbon footprint, and high being greater than 5%. Actions linked to personal vehicles were correctly seen as important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but air travel and meat consumption were incorrectly ranked in the bottom half.
“People might have been focusing on choices where the harms are highly visible or on actions that are symbolic of environmentalism but not related to climate. For example, littering creates no emissions, but we found it was perceived similarly to a high-pollution flight across the Pacific Ocean,” said Wynes.
Finally, the researchers asked participants to make trade-offs between sets of different actions, such as buying food without any packaging in order to save the same amount of emissions or one year not eating meat. Wynes suggested education projects on universities, offices, and grade schools in order to better inform people on climate-friendly choices.
In a previous study, participants got feedback on their food purchases in terms of “lightbulb minutes”, meaning the amount of GHG produced by one minute of lightbulb use. This led to a positive shift in consumption choices. Similarly, people booking flights could be told the fraction of their carbon budget that will be used up by a single trip.
“Further education may be necessary to improve carbon numeracy by providing the public with a basic hierarchy of actions according to carbon reduction efficacy. Consumers seeking to balance their carbon budgets may benefit from external aids (e.g., carbon labels associated with actions) to guide emission-related decision-making,” the researchers wrote.