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Survey reveals gap between climate change perceptions and required actions

While three quarters of UK consumers believe climate change is a serious threat, they are still unclear as to which activities in their lives emit carbon.

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Survey explored perceptions of climate change and what activity contributes to it
Survey explored perceptions of climate change and what activity contributes to it

While 75 per cent of people believe climate change is a serious threat, they are still unclear as to which activities in their lives emit carbon, according to a research report by UK-based Energy Systems Catapult.

 

The study, Understanding Net Zero: A consumer perspective, forms part of the Innovating to Net Zero project that modelled hundreds of potential pathways to achieve 2050 carbon targets.

 

Perceptions and attitudes

 

More than 2,000 people were surveyed in January 2020 and focus groups conducted to understand public attitudes, including:

  • Perceptions of climate change, its severity and what activity contributes to it
  • Attitudes towards low carbon technologies and behaviours in heating, diet and transport.

While more than three quarters (77 per cent) accept they have a personal responsibility to do something about climate change, this concern does not necessarily translate into understanding the biggest sources of carbon emissions or the actions that will make the most difference to cutting them.

 

“For example, people understand a clear link between emissions and transport, but they’re less clear on how heating and eating relate to climate change,” said Matt Lipson, consumer insight business lead at Energy Systems Catapult.

 

For example, less than half (49 per cent) realise that natural gas heating contributes to carbon emissions.

 

“Many people think they’re already doing everything they can. But their efforts don’t necessarily have a big impact from a climate perspective,” added Lipson.

“For example, people understand a clear link between emissions and transport, but they’re less clear on how heating and eating relate to climate change.”

“Eighty-six per cent of people say they are recycling everything they can and 71 per cent say they are trying to reduce their use of single use plastic. But of those surveyed only two per cent had switched to low carbon heating and only two per cent had bought an electric car.

 

“This research underlines the huge challenge of focusing the public’s willingness to tackle climate change on the areas where actions can make the most difference, and where progress is slower, such as transport and heating.”

 

Key findings by subject

 

Transport: four out of five people surveyed owned a car and more than half of these almost always drove it for each of their trips. This rose to two out of three car owners in rural areas. People attending the focus groups loved the independence of travelling by car. The survey found they had many practical reasons for not using public transport, for instance that it did not go to their desired destination.

 

People in focus groups said they were open to moving to electric vehicles in principle, but they would have to be a practical option. Only three per cent of the survey sample, however, owned hybrids and two per cent owned battery electric vehicles.

 

Air travel: people can identify the link between flying and climate change and a third (34 per cent) of those that flew last year said they’d be willing to fly less often. Four fifths (78 per cent) of those who had flown said they would be willing to use a different mode of transport for short haul flights. Trains were the most popular alternative, particularly for domestic flights and trips to Europe.

 

One fifth (19 per cent) had flown three or more times last year and three-fifths (59 per cent) of these said they would not cut down personal flights to only one each year.

 

Heating: most of those surveyed had heard of the different low carbon heating options and around half thought a low carbon heating system would have a positive impact on climate change.

 

However, fewer than 20 per cent said they were likely to change to a low carbon heating system when they next need a heating system replacement. The main reasons were that low carbon heating systems were more expensive and less convenient. However, in a related piece of work, Energy Systems Catapult found that uptake remained very low even when offered to install a system free of charge as part of a field trial.

 

Diet: less than half of people would be willing to cut their red meat and dairy intake by a quarter. Their main reasons were that they liked the taste and couldn’t see a reason to change (even after the link with climate change was explained).

 

The survey revealed that diet is changing over time though with 62 per cent saying their diet has changed a lot over the past five years. Twenty-eight per cent said they were eating more fruit and vegetables and 36 per cent said they were eating less red meat.

 

Energy Systems Catapult was set up to accelerate the transformation of the UK’s energy system and ensure UK businesses and consumers capture the opportunities of clean growth.

 

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