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Researchers designed a test of “carbon competence.” Pretty much everyone failed.


Researchers designed a test of “carbon competence.” Pretty much everyone failed.

The findings suggest people don’t have the background knowledge to accurately judge the effectiveness of climate actions.
July 2, 2024

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People are unable to accurately judge the carbon emissions associated with different behaviors, companies, and industries, according to a new study. The findings suggest that while many consumers want to make sustainable choices, they don’t have the background knowledge to reliably do so.

If people don’t know which actions and choices are most effective at reducing emissions, they are also vulnerable to being hoodwinked by corporate greenwashing, and truly sustainable companies to being outcompeted by greenwashers.

Knowing which choices are most climate-friendly is something that researchers call “carbon competence.” “Low carbon competence presents a substantial barrier to individuals taking climate action,” says study team member Eli Sugerman, a graduate student at Columbia Business School in New York, New York. “This makes it challenging for those who want to behave and consume sustainably to do so.”

In a series of online surveys, Sugerman and his collaborators asked a total of almost 2,000 people in the United States to rank six individual actions (e.g., taking fewer flights or reducing household electricity use), a handful of companies (e.g., United Airlines or Delta) in each of seven industries, or seven industries (e.g., fast food or airlines) in order of emissions.

For the most part, people’s assessments of which behaviors cut carbon emissions most, which companies are the worst emitters in an industry, and which industries are most carbon-intensive were no better than chance, the researchers report in the journal Nature Climate Change.

One exception: consumers generally know that the airline industry is a massive carbon emitter.


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Participants’ difficulties are not so surprising, given the challenges the researchers encountered in putting together the study. “It was really hard for us to find objective, reliable emissions estimates of companies,” says Sugerman. “We need stricter regulation, like sustainability reporting standards, as a first step.”

The researchers found evidence that people tend to judge climate actions they hear about most often as being the most effective at reducing emissions (in fact, the opposite is the case). This is an example of what the researchers call “attribute substitution:” “Faced with the complex task of estimating emissions, consumers simplify the task by considering easily accessible attributes, often weighting these attributes far differently than they should, erring in both magnitude and direction,” they write.

The researchers also investigated what characteristics affect a person’s carbon competence. Experts who worked for a conservation organization or who had presented at a climate change conference were better judges of emissions than the public. But that was pretty much it.

“Given the well-documented relationship between political ideology and opinion on climate change, it was surprising to see that political ideology was not significantly related to carbon competence (neither was concern for climate change or confidence in one’s own climate knowledge),” Sugerman says.

Anyone who wants to test their own carbon competence can take a short version of the survey about climate-friendly behaviors online.

More research is necessary to understand carbon competence in different countries; the team is already conducting a similar study in Germany, Sugerman reports. In addition, he adds, “we need solutions for increasing carbon competence, like carbon labels, education, or whatever works!”

Source: Johnson E.J. et al.Widespread misestimates of greenhouse gas emissions suggest low carbon competence.” Nature Climate Change 2024.

Image: Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine.

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