Carbon innumeracy

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Individuals must have a quantitative understanding of the carbon footprint tied to their everyday decisions to make efficient sustainable decisions. We report research of the innumeracy of individuals as it relates to their carbon footprint. In three studies that varied in terms of scale and sample, respondents estimate the quantity of CO2 released when combusting a gallon of gasoline in comparison to several well-known metrics including food calories and travel distance. Consistently, respondents estimated the quantity of CO2 from gasoline compared to other metrics with significantly less accuracy while exhibiting a tendency to underestimate CO2. Such relative absence of carbon numeracy of even a basic consumption habit may limit the effectiveness of environmental policies and campaigns aimed at changing individual behavior. We discuss several caveats as well as opportunities for policy design that could aid the improvement of people’s quantitative understanding of their carbon footprint.




Grinstein, A., Kodra, E., Chen, S., Sheldon, S., & Zik, O. (2018). Carbon innumeracy. PLoS ONE, 13(5).

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