Monday, October 18, 2021

Climate perception gaps and individual carbon footprints

The majority of people cannot identify which lifestyle moves are the most effective at limiting their carbon footprint, according to an Ipsos polling survey of more than 21,000 people across 30 countries, which was published in 2021. Nevertheless, an overwhelming number claim they know which personal actions would make a significant difference in tackling climate change.

This year's Perils of Perception study by Ipsos looks at how the public in 30 markets around the world perceives environmental action. The Global Market Average was 7 in 10 (69%) who agreed that “I understand what action I need to take to play my part in tackling climate change.” Confidence was highest in Peru (85%), Colombia (83%), Mexico and Chile (both 82%) and lowest in Japan (40%) and Russia (41%).

The most popular remedies for individual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) were among the least effective.

Ipsos, headquartered in Paris, is the 3rd largest global market research company. 

The three top actions that an individual living in one of the world’s richer markets should engage in to cut the carbon footprint were: recycling as much as possible (59%), buying energy from renewable sources (49%) and replacing a typical car with an electric or hybrid vehicle (41%).

People in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden were more likely than average to correctly pick out avoiding a long-distance flight as an effective measure (at 39%, 42%, 33% and 42% respectively).

Research published in 2017 (see below) suggested that having one fewer child trumps all other individual actions. This is followed by not having a car at all and avoiding long-distance flights.

Ipsos said that 1 in 10 (11%) around the world named not having an additional child as one of their top three measures to cut carbon emissions; 17% chose not to have a car and 21% named avoiding long-distance flights. The latter was was behind for example air-drying clothes (picked by 26%) or replacing traditional light bulbs with low energy ones (36%). Recycling as much as possible was named as one of the top two options in every market.

Air-drying clothes and per capita GHG gas emissions

2019 data for the emissions of six greenhouse gases led by carbon dioxide in the EU27 were at an average of 8.4 metric tonnes per capita. Excluding Luxembourg (as over 40% of its workforce lives in neighbouring countries), Ireland was in the lead at 12.8 and Sweden was at the lowest with 5.2 per capita according to the European Environmental Agency.

Among the then mainly 36 rich member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Statista data show Australia on top at 21.63 tonnes per capita followed by the US at 19.93; Canada at 19.52; New Zealand at 17.21; Iceland 13.93 and Ireland 12.24.

The American Rhodium Group has estimated that China overtook the average OECD per capita level in 2020. In 2019 China was at 10.1 metric tonnes per capita and the OECD average was 10.5.

A person foregoing driving a car could avoid an average of 2.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from being emitted in a developed country but air-drying clothes would save just 0.2 tonnes of carbon emissions a year per person.

According to the Rhodium Group "global emissions — including emissions of all six Kyoto gases, inclusive of land-use and forests and international bunkers — reached 52 gigatons of CO₂-equivalent in 2019, an 11.4% increase over the past decade. China alone contributed over 27% of total global emissions, far exceeding the US — the second-highest emitter — which contributed 11% of the global total."

The 2019 total is more than 40% higher than emissions in 1990, which were about 35bn metric tonnes.


The global population in 1700 was estimated at 600m and early in the next century, it is likely to hit 11bn despite population falls or stagnation in many countries.

Seth Wynes of Concordia University, Montreal, Canada, and Kimberly A. Nicholas, Lund University, Sweden, had a paper, 'The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions' published in Environmental Research Letters, in 2017.

The researchers considered a broad range of individual lifestyle choices and they calculated their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries, based on 148 scenarios from 39 sources.

They reported a reduction of 58.6 tonnes of CO₂ -equivalent (tCO2e: metric tonnes of carbon dioxide) for each year of a parent’s life.

The estimate is arrived at by adding up the emissions of the child and all their descendants, then dividing this total by the parent’s lifespan. Each parent was allocated 50% of the child’s emissions, 25% of their grandchildren’s emissions and so on.

According to The Guardian, the researchers analysed dozens of sources from Europe, North America and Japan to calculate the carbon savings individuals in richer nations can make. They found getting rid of a car saved 2.4 tonnes a year, avoiding a return transatlantic flight saved 1.6 tonnes and becoming vegetarian saved 0.8 tonnes a year.

These actions saved the same carbon whichever country an individual lived in, but others varied. The savings from switching to an electric car depend on how green electricity generation is, meaning big savings can be made in Australia but the savings in Belgium are six times lower. Switching your home energy supplier to a green energy company also varied, depending on whether the green energy displaces fossil fuel energy or not.

Nicholas said the low-impact actions, such as recycling, were still worth doing: “All of those are good things to do. But they are more of a beginning than an end. They are certainly not sufficient to tackle the scale of the climate challenge that we face.”


Climate change challenges of the 21st century