Imagine that you are planning to travel from Bristol to Birmingham next week. As you consider the methods of transport available to you, you are taking three criteria into account: price, journey time, and carbon footprint.
You find that comparing prices and journey times is easy enough. On that basis you rule out flying and cycling, both of which are (for different reasons) more effort than they are worth. Which leaves you with a dilemma: drive yourself, take the train, or take the bus?
If you wanted to minimise your carbon footprint, which option should you take?
Your ability to accurately answer this question, which might depend on several factors including what kind of vehicle you drive, is one aspect of your carbon literacy. Here, similar to previous authors, we define carbon literacy as people’s knowledge, confidence, and motivation in relation to reducing their carbon footprint.
Carbon literacy is important because these three aspects seem to be closely intertwined. In other words, those of us with more knowledge about the environmental impact of different actions also tend to be more motivated and confident in our ability to reduce our carbon footprint.
In theory, then, boosting someone’s environment-related knowledge, confidence, or motivation is likely to have a positive knock-on effect on their overall level of carbon literacy. Which, in theory again, should make them more likely to act to reduce their carbon footprint.
We decided to test these theories in an online study conducted with Cogo, the online platform that helps individuals and businesses measure their carbon footprints. What we knew (thanks to Cogo) were the carbon dioxide emissions associated with many of our everyday purchases, from flights to second-hand clothes. But what we didn’t know was how to present this information (known as the carbon intensity) in a way that improved people’s carbon literacy.
To answer this question we presented 995 participants with a series of online banking application screens displaying different transactions, along with their cost and carbon intensity. The way we presented this carbon intensity information differed between our five treatment groups (see below).
After showing our participants these screens, we tested their knowledge of the relative carbon intensities of different options; and their confidence and motivation in relation to reducing their own carbon footprint. With these responses we calculated an overall carbon literacy score for each individual.
We anticipated, on the basis of previous qualitative research, that the spectrum displays would increase carbon literacy more effectively than the Standard (kg/carbon), Equivalent (equivalent miles driven by car), and Control (no carbon intensity information) displays.
In line with our prediction, we found that carbon literacy scores were significantly higher among participants in the Spectrum (t(990) = 2.3, p = .02) and Spectrum+ (t(990) = 2.1, p = .03) groups relative to the Control group. In other words, compared to giving people no information at all, presenting people with relative carbon intensities on a spectrum increased carbon literacy by up to 8%, or 4.2 percentage points.
We also found that there was a positive relationship (p < .001) between people’s level of carbon literacy and the likelihood that they would want to calculate their carbon footprint. Which suggests that in the long run improving carbon literacy is a worthwhile approach to encouraging more environmentally-friendly behaviour.
Together, our results indicate that presenting carbon intensity information in a way that enables people to understand the relative impact of their purchasing decisions can be an effective way of boosting carbon literacy. Which, in turn, seems to motivate people to calculate (and perhaps also reduce) their carbon footprint.
Until then, you can find out more about Cogo, carbon literacy, and the above study by visiting this page.