Correcting misunderstandings about CO2 emissions doesn’t help to fight climate change
by Davide Pace (LMU Munich)

How much CO2 does one generate to raise a cow, make a steak out of it, and deliver it to your favorite supermarket? Most likely, you don’t know, and you are not alone. People have little clue about the size of the emissions associated with the goods they consume. When they are forced to make a guess, the guess tends to be lower than the actual number, and the misperceptions can be huge. At the same time, people care about the environment. Almost everyone says to be concerned about climate change, most people indicate they are willing to make sacrifices for the climate, and tens of thousands join protests to demand more stringent climate policies.

From these two observations, a simple idea emerges. People care about the environment, but they just don’t know what to do to reduce their footprint. So, if we tell people how much each product pollutes, they will behave more sustainably. Policymakers embrace this idea. The European Commission’s “Farm to Fork Strategy” proposes an extensive carbon labeling strategy, while its “New Consumer Agenda” argues for “more reliable information on sustainability”. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency implements several carbon labels.

Can politicians push people to act sustainably via information campaigns that correct consumers’ misperceptions? In a recent working paper, we investigated this question (Imai et al., 2023), proceeding in two steps. The first step identifies the products for which correcting the misunderstanding should generate a significant behavioral change. These are the products for which a) many people think the emissions are lower than they are, and b) the people who make this mistake care about climate change. It turns out that people are worst to guess the emissions generated by more polluting products. This is why we predict that one of the most promising targets of information is beef meat. Meanwhile, we predict no consumer reaction to information about a similar product like poultry meat. Cows are about ten times more polluting than chickens – mainly because cows produce large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

In the second step, we test if these predictions are correct. To do so, we ran an experiment where we asked people how much they were willing to pay for a shipment of meat to their home address. The shipment is real, and people who want to receive it need to pay for it. We divide our participants into four groups: chicken-with information, chicken-without information, beef-with information, and beef-without information. The information tells the participants about the average emissions associated with the productions and distribution of one pound (0.45 kg) of each type of meat.  Whenever we give the information, people become more accurate in their guesses about the emissions of the products. Yet, we don’t find that the information reduces the amount the participants want to pay for the meat. This null effect of information was expected for chicken, but it is contrary to our predictions for beef.

We believe that our null result is informative about other consumer behavior, as our subjects come from a representative sample of the US population. We can exclude that the null result is due to the participants being inattentive to the information, the participants being already well informed, or the participants being vegetarian.

Our results thus indicate that correcting consumer beliefs does not necessarily lead to lower demand for carbon-intense consumer products, even in settings where misperceptions are large and consumers are interested in reducing or offsetting emissions. The results are consistent with recent evidence from university canteens experiments (for example, Lohman et al., 2022). These studies find that labels informing students of each meal's carbon footprint make them slightly more likely to choose greener options but the reduction in emissions is small and generally short-lived.

Overall, the picture from our and other studies suggests that policymakers should temper their enthusiasm for providing information to consumers, as informtion produce only modest behavioral changes in many cases. Consumers’ good intentions cannot substitute climate policies based on carbon taxes, green subsidies, and regulations.

Full article can be found here.

This text is jointly published by "Researching Misunderstandings" and BSE INSIGHTS.



Lohmann, Paul, Elisabeth Gsottbauer, Anya Doherty, and Andreas Kontoleon. 2022. “Do Carbon Footprint Labels Promote Climatarian Diets? Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 114: 102693.

Imai, Taisuke, Davide D. Pace, Peter Schwardmann, and Joël J. van der Weele. 2022. “Correcting Consumer Misperceptions About CO 2 Emissions.”



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