Majority underestimate climate impact of food - ESRI

People do not yet understand how what they choose to eat affects climate change, according to new ESRI research. When invited to list which everyday behaviours contribute to their carbon footprint, just 1-in-25 adults mentioned their diet. Any references to food were more likely to be about where it came from or how it was packaged than whether meals contain foods linked to high emissions, such as red meat.

In the study, funded by the EPA, a nationally representative sample of 1,200 adults completed online diaries about their day and then listed the actions they thought mattered most for their carbon footprint. The findings reveal widespread misunderstandings. One-in-five who travelled by car did not identify driving as a source of carbon emissions. Almost half did not list home energy use and those who did were more likely to mention cooking than heating water or using white appliances, both of which produce higher carbon emissions.

The study also found that many people in Ireland have tried to reduce their carbon footprint, with 40% saying that they had reduced emissions from transport, mainly by driving less often. Another 25% said they would like to reduce their transport emissions but can’t, mostly because they don’t have access to public transport. However, 30% saw no need to change their transport behaviour.

One quarter said they had changed what they eat to reduce their carbon footprint. A slightly larger proportion (27%) reported that they would like to but can’t, mostly citing cost and not knowing what to eat as the biggest difficulties. However, the largest group (47%), did not see a need to change what they eat.

“Most people recognise the need to reduce their own carbon footprint and many have already made changes to their daily life,” said Dr Shane Timmons of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit. “But knowing which actions make the biggest difference is a big problem, particularly when it comes to food. More guidance about how to make affordable, nutritious meals that limit foods with high emissions might help. Continued improvements in public transport, like those set in the Climate Action Plan, would also mean that many people who are already willing to change how they travel could do so.”

Dr Eimear Cotter, Director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment, said “Responding to the climate crises requires collective action to reduce our daily emissions. It is clear from this research that much better information is needed to inform people what actions they can take to make the biggest difference to their carbon footprint. This research provides valuable insights to help inform the design of both effective climate policies and public information campaigns”.