Clothes dryer vs the car: carbon footprint misconceptions

Most people fail to identify the best ways to reduce their carbon footprint. 21,011 participants were asked, across almost 30 countries  — from this list of options, which threedo you think would most reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of an individual living in one of the world’s richer countries?The most popular choice was Recycling as much as possible which only saves 0.2 tonnes of CO2 per year. The least popular choice was Having one less child yet this would save 58.6 tonnes of CO2 per year, based on data for developed countries

The majority of people are unable to identify which lifestyle decisions are the most effective at limiting their carbon footprint, according to an international survey of more than 21,000 people across almost 30 countries.

Yet, an overwhelming number claim they know which personal actions they must take to play their part in tackling climate change, accordingly to the Ipsos Mori survey exclusive to the Financial Times.

Across all countries, the average person who took part in the survey almost consistently ranked an avoidance of tumble dryers and a switch to low-energy lightbulbs as more effective ways to reduce individual emissions — rather than not owning a car or choosing a plant-based diet.

In reality, an individual using less carbon-intensive forms of travel, instead of driving a car, could prevent an average of 2.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from being released into the atmosphere each year in a developed country. Air drying clothes would save just 0.2 tonnes of carbon emissions a year per person.

By comparison, total annual greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, are about 10.4 tonnes per person in high-income countries, compared with 12 tonnes in 2000. 

Entire global annual greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, are about 51bn tonnes. This is more than 40 per cent higher than emissions in 1990, which were around 35bn tonnes.

“Our research shows that the issue of the environmental crisis is familiar to people around the world,” said Kelly Beaver, managing director of public affairs at Ipsos Mori. “But people remain confused about what actions are most likely to have a significant effect on their carbon footprint.”

“The public seem to have got the message when it comes to the importance of recycling, but the reality is . . . the actions that need to be taken require significantly bigger sacrifices,” Beaver added. 

Recycling was the action most commonly selected as an effective means to limit an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, the environmental impact of recycling has less to do with limiting emissions, and more to do with reducing personal waste and eliminating plastic pollution.

Annual emissions savings for an individual who is recycling as much as possible are estimated to be around 0.2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

One of the options most ignored by respondents, as a possible way to reduce personal impact on the environment, was choosing to have fewer children. A commonly quoted estimate for annual emissions saved from having one less child dwarfs that of other actions, at 58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emission, as featured in Environment Research Letters in 2017. Although some academics argue this is an overestimate, the Ipsos Mori survey responses suggest there is a lack of awareness around the potential impact having smaller families can have on the climate.

A generational knowledge divide was also highlighted in some of the results. Younger people were more aware of the environmental impact of having fewer children as well as the benefits of a plant-based diet, the results showed, while older populations placed more value in recycling.

Confidence in own knowledge of how to lessen personal climate impact. Bar chart showing % who agree with this statement ‘I understand what action I need to take to play my part in tackling climate change’ , by country. Peru came out on top with over 80%, whereas Japan was less certain with just 40% agreeing

One of the most unexpected findings in the survey, considering the misperceptions, was that nearly 70 per cent of respondents believed they knew how to lessen their impact on the environment.

People in Japan were least confident about how to lessen their carbon footprint, followed by Russia and also Saudi Arabia and South Korea, all countries with a relatively high dependence on fossil fuels.

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Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here 

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