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Widespread misestimates of greenhouse gas emissions suggest low carbon competence


As concern with climate change increases, people seek to behave and consume sustainably. This requires understanding which behaviours, firms and industries have the greatest impact on emissions. Here we ask if people are knowledgeable enough to make choices that align with growing sustainability intentions. Across five studies, we (1) demonstrate that accuracy of individuals’ emissions-related estimates is limited, (2) provide evidence that this misestimation is consistent with a cognitive process of attribute substitution and (3) identify conditions that do (and do not) moderate estimation accuracy. Our findings suggest that individuals’ efficacy as consumers, investors and citizens is currently hampered by their misjudgements of carbon impact. We advocate accessible and easily understandable information that highlights the causal impact of consumption decisions to facilitate climate action.

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Fig. 1: Accuracy overview.
Fig. 2: Behaviour and industry-level accuracy.
Fig. 3: Firm-level accuracy.
Fig. 4: Attribute substitution overview.

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Data availability

All data are publicly available from ref. 36.

Code availability

All code will be publicly available from ref. 36 before publication.


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This research was supported by a grant from the Tamer Center and received assistance from the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia University. E.J.J. was supported by a visiting fellowship at TU Berlin funded by the Einstein Stiftung. We thank S. Xu, I. Fadayomi and X. Hua for excellent research assistance and J. Ludwig and E. Rosen for comments. We thank seminar participants and colleagues at Columbia’s Tamer Center, Marketing Division and Sustainability and Behavior (SAB) Lab for invaluable feedback throughout the development of this research and for helping us administer the experiment in university, conference and field settings far and wide.

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E.J.J. and E.R.S. conceived the studies and all authors contributed to their design. E.R.S. and E.J.J. collected data and supervised the data analysis. E.R.S. and E.J.J. wrote the paper with revisions by V.M., G.J. and M.M. All authors read and approved the final version of the paper, and E.J.J. and E.R.S. serve as joint first authors. E.R.S. serves as the corresponding author.

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Correspondence to Eli Rosen Sugerman.

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We have complied with all relevant ethical regulations and received approval from Columbia University’s Institutional Review Board. We have complied with all relevant informed consent requirements.

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Nature Climate Change thanks Sebastian Berger, Ulf Hahnel and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Johnson, E.J., Sugerman, E.R., Morwitz, V.G. et al. Widespread misestimates of greenhouse gas emissions suggest low carbon competence. Nat. Clim. Chang. 14, 707–714 (2024).

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