• Poll finds people have the wrong priorities for tackling climate change.
  • Most people overestimate the impact of less effective green actions.
  • We also underestimate the proportion of people displaced by climate and weather-related disasters.

If you think recycling as much as possible is the best way to cut your carbon footprint – think again. It’s actually a fair way down the list.

Having fewer children is one of the most effective actions in reducing future greenhouse gas emissions – but this is not widely understood, a new survey finds.

In its Perils of Perception survey, market research firm Ipsos finds that misperceptions are rife about the most effective climate actions.

“Across markets, people on average underestimate the most impactful climate actions they can take, and overestimate the least impactful ones,” Ipsos says.

The survey is a useful reminder of how our perceptions can differ from reality, without advocating that the actions with the biggest impact are appropriate for everyone.

Impact analysis

For example, recycling as much as possible would only save 0.2 tonnes of CO2 per year.

But having one child fewer would save 58.6 tonnes of future carbon emissions – ranking it number one of nine climate impact actions in the survey. Only 11% of people correctly identified this as being among the most effective actions.

The second most impactful climate action in the list is not having a car – which would save 2.4 tonnes of carbon each year. Just 17% of respondents saw this as a top priority in curbing their emissions.

The third best way to cut your carbon footprint is avoiding one long-distance flight lasting six hours or more, which would save 1.6 tonnes of carbon a year. 21% of people surveyed saw this as a carbon-cutting opportunity.

59% of the people surveyed believed recycling would be the best way to reduce their carbon footprint, but this action is ranked 7th out of the nine actions for people living in one of the world’s richer countries.

Using only renewable energy ranked fourth for climate impact. Replacing a typical car with an electric or hybrid vehicle – ranked fifth – was also perceived to be a top three action for climate impact.

a chart showing that respondents to the Ipsos Perils of Perception survey underestimated or misunderstood the most important actions they could take to cut their carbon footprint. Source:
Respondents to the Ipsos Perils of Perception survey underestimated or misunderstood the most important actions they could take to cut their carbon footprint.
Image: Perils of Perception survey, Ipsos

Carbon ranking

Asked what five other actions might appear in a top 30 list of ways of reducing our personal impact on climate change, similar trends emerged.

“Actions such as buying products with less packaging and buying fewer or more durable items are overestimated compared with refurbishing homes for energy efficiency,” Ipsos says.

“Going plant-based makes more of a difference to your carbon footprint than eating locally produced food, but the public guess this is the other way around,” it adds.

a chart showing that people generally over-estimated the impact of less effective climate actions
People generally over-estimated the impact of less effective climate actions.
Image: Perils of Perception survey, Ipsos

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.

Fleeing climate disasters

The proportion of people displaced as a result of climate and weather-related disasters such as hurricanes, storms and flooding was also under-estimated.

Forty three per cent believe more people are displaced by conflict than climate. In fact, two-thirds – 67% – of new displacements in the first six months of 2020 were caused by climate and weather.

Ipsos surveyed more than 21,000 adults in 30 markets including the US, China, India, Malaysia, Argentina and Spain.