Britons are clueless on the relative effectiveness of actions they could take to cut carbon

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
October 19, 2021, 8:55 AM UTC

Perceptions and reality do not stack up for the public, particularly for the most effective action they could take

With climate change a prominent concern, many people will be looking to make changes to their lifestyle to try and do their bit for the planet. But do they have a good sense of what the most effective actions they can take are? New YouGov research suggests not.

The most striking finding of the research is how much Britons underestimate the environmental impact of having one fewer child. Studies have indicated that a couple having one fewer child could reduce carbon emissions by between 23.7 and 117.7 tons a year. This is by far the most significant action people could take at an individual (or rather, couple) level, but Britons greatly underestimate its impact.

Asked to estimate on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means “no reduction in carbon emissions” and 10 means an “extremely high reduction in carbon emissions”, Britons rated having one fewer child as 4.9 on average – the joint lowest overall. Just 12% of those who gave the measure a score chose the top score of 10. It is also worth noting that more people answer “don’t know” to this option (25%) than for any other measure (12-18%).

Of the list of measures we asked about, Britons rated a person shifting all their car travel to cycling or walking as being the most effective, giving it an average score of 7.4. This was the second most effective measure listed, with a study suggesting such a lifestyle shift would be worth on average 1.76 tons of carbon per person per year.

However, the next most effective measure listed ­– taking one fewer long-haul return flight – only received a score of 5.9, the third lowest. An average of figures across several studies, based on flying from London to New York and back, suggest that foregoing such a trip would save 1.6 tons of carbon.

Substantially less effective measures than this received higher scores. For example, reducing the number of plastic purchases, which studies suggest could save a relatively low 0.02 tons of carbon per person year (the lowest of all the measures we asked about) received a score of 6.7 from the public, the third highest score.

While COP-26 will focus on what governments can do to tackle climate change, the results of this study show that much education is needed to show consumers – many of whom are willing to make lifestyle changes for the sake of the environment – how to maximize the effects of their good intentions.

See the full results here

Carbon emissions data is drawn primarily from ‘Quantifying the potential for climate change mitigation of consumption options’ (Ivanova et al, 2020), with the exception of the value for ‘The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions’ (Wynes and Nicholas, 2017). Where possible we have drawn carbon emissions figures from studies for the UK only, otherwise the EU/Europe. Some figures are an average of results from several studies.

Wynes, S., and Nicholas, K. A., (2017) The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541.

Ivanova, D., Barrett, J., Wiedenhofer, D., Macura, B., Callaghan, M. W. & Creutzig, F. (2020). Quantifying the potential for climate change mitigation of consumption options. Environmental Research Letters. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ab8589. (see supplementary figures tables accompanying study)