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What’s your carbon footprint? You probably have no idea.

Do you know what your carbon footprint is? According to a recent study co-authored by Professor Amir Grinstein, you probably don’t, and that’s a big problem.

Published

July 16, 2018

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What is your carbon footprint? How much carbon dioxide is emitted from one gallon of gasoline when you’re driving a car? If you don’t know the answer to either question, D’Amore-McKim School of Business Professor Amir Grinstein’s recent research aims to examine people’s knowledge of their own carbon footprint’s and how they can better educate themselves about the real impact they have on the environment.

Grinstein’s study asked 1,000 people to accurately estimate the C02 emissions from a gallon of regular gas. Many were way off – with the number actually being somewhere between 9 kilograms, or about 20 pounds of carbon.

The graph below shows the mean estimation errors for each of the surveys. Respondents were asked to guess the amount of CO2 emitted from burning 1 gallon of gasoline and the amount of calories in 1 gallon of whole milk.

Although a few people responded that they thought their carbon footprint would be best measured in tons, the majority of respondents claimed they emitted a much lower level of carbon than is actually true. This is common, according to Grinstein, who claimed it was like a psychological defense mechanism that allows people to minimize their negative behavior.

How can people change their understanding of carbon footprints? Grinstein suggests relaying it in terms people are likely to better understand, such as calories in food.

“If I tell you, ‘there are 300 calories in this hamburger,’ that makes sense to some degree,” Grinstein said. “It’s an abstract concept, but people have been trained to understand calories and use them to make responsible decisions, or at least understand the implications.”

There are carbon calculators available for people to use, but even these can be imperfect.

“Having a better understanding of how CO2 emissions play a role in everyday life allows people to decide if they’re willing to step up and change,” Grinstein said.

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