By Professor Richard Wiseman

MOST of us are eager to help prevent climate change by altering our lifestyles – perhaps you unplug phone chargers, avoid leaving televisions on standby, take fewer flights or eat less meat? With each of us emitting around of 10,000 kilograms of CO2 per year, individual lifestyle changes are a crucial element of global climate action, but do you really know the impact of these changes?

I teamed up with Professor Mike Page from the University of Hertfordshire and Edinburgh Science to uncover some of the myths associated with sustainable lifestyles. Eight hundred people took part in our online study, answering questions on their attitudes towards sustainable lifestyles and estimating how many kilograms of carbon are saved by specific actions over the course of a year. 
The great news? People really care. There is a real appetite to make lifestyle changes; more than half of respondents indicated that their lifestyle was more sustainable than the average person. However, we quickly discovered that people’s estimates were shockingly inaccurate. Even those who thought they were highly knowledgeable about sustainability held inaccurate beliefs.
One widely publicised action – unplugging your phone charger – saves around 2kg of CO2, but one-third of respondents thought it saved 50 times that. Not leaving televisions on standby saves 15kg of CO2 but a third of respondents believed it saved 125kg plus.
Asked to estimate the impact of buying a blue jumper instead of red, an amazing 70% of respondents thought that would be a real difference. There is no impact here at all but even those claiming to know a great deal about climate estimated savings of around 37kg of CO2.
At the other end of the scale the public underestimated the impact that more significant, changes could have. Becoming vegetarian can save more than 600kg, yet half of respondents guessed 300kg or less. Flying in an aeroplane is probably the fastest way to increase carbon footprints, around 120kg CO2 emissions per passenger per hour for economy class, but people wildly underestimated here too. Perhaps fewer of us jet off on holiday than own a mobile phone, making inaccuracy understandable, but the fact remains, the enormous impact that reducing flying (or choosing not to fly) is poorly understood.  
This research identifies myths associated with sustainability, but also shows that we need to focus on communicating just how impactful the changes that we can all make are. From a psychologist’s perspective what we may be seeing is a Recognition Heuristic which loosely means “I’ve heard of it, so it must be important”. People tend to think that wildly publicised changes are more impactful, simply because they have heard of them more frequently. 
People are willing to make changes but they need information on which to base decisions. It’s true that every little helps but it is clear that it is time to start publicising the changes with the biggest impacts. Knowledge is power when it comes to tackling our climate crisis.

Richard Wiseman holds Britain’s only Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire