Why we need to know more about individual carbon footprints

January 09, 2024

We then attempted to describe and explain differences in the areas of mobility, nutrition, housing and consumption.1, 2As expected, differences in the carbon footprint are large. By far the biggest driver is income: people with high incomes emit far more greenhouse gases than those with medium to low incomes. Interestingly, carbon emissions increase less with income if respondents hold strong pro-environmental attitudes. Women and older people cause slightly fewer emissions, while people with a higher level of education cause slightly more. This means that right-wing voters don’t emit more than voters on the centre and left.

To design policy measures that take these differences into account and are ultimately politically acceptable to the majority, I consider reliable estimates of the emissions of individuals and different segments of the population to be indispensable. However, such data isn’t available in most countries.

A question of income and other factors

As part of the Swiss Environmental Panel (see box), my research group estimated the individual climate footprint in a representative sample of around 7,500 people in Switzerland using a survey and a CO2 calculator. We then attempted to describe and explain differences in the areas of mobility, nutrition, housing and consumption.1, 2

As expected, differences in the carbon footprint are large. They range from just under two to several dozen tonnes per capita per year. By far the biggest driver is income: people with high incomes emit far more greenhouse gases than those with medium to low incomes. Mobility behaviour, and air travel in particular, is the strongest cause.

Other factors also play a role, but to a lesser extent. Interestingly, carbon emissions increase less with income if respondents hold strong pro-environmental attitudes. Women and older people cause slightly fewer emissions, while people with a higher level of education cause slightly more. Another noteworthy point is that people’s political self-classification on a left-right scale plays no role. This means that right-wing voters don’t emit more than voters on the centre and left.

The source of this news is from ETH Zurich

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