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Are people clueless when it comes to their carbon footprints?

Or are they just fooling themselves and being selfish?

What's the best thing you can do to reduce your personal carbon footprint? Frank Bilstein, a partner at a consultancy A.T Kearney near Cologne, is an electric car driving vegetarian with lots of insulation in his home, so he has a pretty good idea of priorities. After some research and looking at a lot of carbon calculators, he came up with a list of stuff that works, which he published in his post What reduces our personal CO2 footprint? We have no clue! (And followed up with “Plastik Plastik über alles” – more reasons why our climate is in trouble.)

Order of things to do© Frank Bilstein

But then he did a survey of 1,500 Americans and 1,500 Germans (and subsequently extended the study to the UK and France), giving them a list of things they can do to reduce their carbon footprints. Here is the list, in order of effectiveness, but which was put in the survey in a random order:

  • Energy-efficient heating/cooling/insulation
  • Avoid one return trip by aircraft per year
  • Eat less red meat
  • Fuel-efficient driving
  • Buy local and seasonal produce
  • Unplug unused electronics to stop standby
  • No more plastic bags

I am disappointed that he didn't include recycling, which other studies show people think is the most important thing that they do. But still, the results from the survey are fascinating.

What people do in Germany© Frank Bilstein

Here are the German results, with the beliefs compared to their actual facts about what works.The most surprising thing is the preoccupation with plastic bags. They may be made from fossil fuels, but their impact on carbon dioxide emissions is negligible.

Results from four countries© Frank Bilstein

And here are the results across the four countries where the survey was done. Everybody believes that giving up plastic bags is the most important thing they can do. There are fascinating regional variations; Americans, who tend to fly a lot because their rail service is so bad, really underestimate the impact of flying. The French, who love local and seasonal food, pat themselves on the back for that. The Germans love their meat, so they underestimate its impact.

Bilstein concludes that “if our capacity to address environmental issues is limited to executing only a few actions, we may need to prioritize. And we need to know what works well to achieve our goals and what does not work so well.”

But then he quotes a woman who describes a conundrum that I think explains everything: “I like my weekend trips, but at least I always bring a reusable bag when I go grocery shopping!”

I believe Bilstein is misinterpreting the results of his survey. People aren't clueless, they are lazy and maybe a bit self-indulgent. They are ordering their choices in a form of self-justification. Plastic bags are easy and highly visible signs of virtue. It's like solar panels on your roof; people would rather spend money on them rather than efficient heating and cooling or insulation, because they are also visible virtue signals.

Nobody is even willing to acknowledge that what is convenient to them is actually producing a lot of carbon. The Germans like their meat so it's not so bad. The Americans want to fly so it's not so bad. It's all sort of the reverse of virtue signalling.

We probably all do it; I am so proud of my e-bike and down-sizing (highly visible), but blow it all on eating meat and flying to conferences. I am not being clueless but I am being selfish.

Bilstein's survey choices reflect his European sensibilities; as I noted earlier, I would have liked to see recycling on it, along with rooftop solar and getting rid of SUVs. It's such an interesting exercise in finding out what people really think about what they do.