Per capita carbon footprints

Start date:
January 2008
December 2008

This project explored public understanding of terms such as ‘carbon’, ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘carbon allowance’ and gathered information on how people use and interpret the Defra's 'Act on CO2' carbon calculator in real time. It explored understanding of the carbon impact of a range of behaviours and examined the extent to which knowing more about those impact makes people think about their behaviour and plan alternatives. The research included a literature review, qualitative research with 136 individuals, follow-up interviews, reporting and dissemination.

The key objectives of this research were to:

  • Further explore understanding of terms such as ‘carbon’, ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘carbon allowance’;
  • Gather information on how people use the Act on CO2 carbon calculator in real time and interpret the results;
  • Examine how information about carbon balances may be interpreted;
  • Explore understanding of the carbon impact of a range of behaviours;
  • Examine the extent to which knowing the size of their carbon footprint makes people think about their behaviour and plan alternatives;
  • Explore the relationship between these concepts and tools, and actual changes in action and behaviour;
  • Examine how people understand and might interact with a carbon-related allowance and trading system; and
  • Provide early indications of the carbon impact of varying lifestyles relating to the Defra environmental segmentation model

Research was conducted in four stages:

  • Desk research - The study began with a literature review that drew together the existing information on carbon footprinting and behaviour change, as well as the current state of play in relation to public attitudes towards, and understanding of, climate change. This fed into the development of questions for the next stages of the project, and specifically the topic guide for the initial wave of paired interviews.
  • Paired interviews - For this stage of the research, 140 individuals were interviewed in pairs, spread between five locations around the country (London, Liverpool, Newcastle, Bath and Birmingham).  The interviews involved in depth questioning on understanding of climate change and associated terms, live interaction with the Defra Act on CO2 calculator, and observation of reactions to the information provided. Partcipants were also asked about their initial reactions to personal carbon trading (PCT) following a quick explanation of the idea, after which a more detailed discussion took place about how participants’ might behave were such a system in place.

Interviewees were recruited according to Defra’s environmental segmentation model, which divides the public into seven segments based on their values, beliefs and attitudes towards the environment.

  • Follow-up interviews – Approximately two months later, 56 respondents were contacted by telephone for a follow-up interview, primarily to assess how behaviour had shifted (if at all), since interaction with the calculator. The topic guide also covered issues such as the impact of the calculator on understanding of key terms and of the carbon implications of particular behaviours; perceptions about the ease with which various pro-environmental behaviours could be taken up; and views on personal carbon trading, to ascertain whether participants’ thinking on the issue had developed any further.
  • Analysis and reporting - These two waves of qualitative research generated an enormous volume of data. In order to effectively analyse these, notes on the interviews were recorded in a spreadsheet and these notes were then analysed according to the original research objectives. Brainstorming sessions were also held with stakeholders to aid the analysis process.

The final report is due to be published shortly. Findings will be posted here, along with a link to download the report when it becomes available. In the meantime there is further information available on the Defra website.

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