Categories
Climate Crisis

Fighting Our Food Fallacy

Eating less meat is one of the top drivers to bring down our personal CO2 footprint (and no, using fewer plastic bags does not make the top ten list). That is one of the reasons why plant-based food is hyped these days. But after surveying more than 5,000 people in the US and Germany, the truth is that we massively underestimate how much meat we still consume. That begs the question of how to encourage more sustainable food habits. 

If you live in the “climate crisis” filter bubble like myself, you get the impression that everyone is happily munching on plant-based food 24/7 these days (recent sales data points to exponential growth). In 2020, 400,000 more Germans claimed to be vegetarian than the year before. Yet, per capita consumption of meat across OECD countries has actually increased by close to 9% since 2010.

Now try this: When speaking with friends, casually drop the message that you have become a vegetarian. My guess is that in 8 out of 10 cases, your friends will feel compelled to respond like this: “Oh well, actually, you know, we really don’t eat meat that much anymore, do we, honey?”

It seems that being a vegetarian (or consuming less meat) is becoming the “socially desirable” answer. This is great if it heralds a new social norm of more sustainable eating behavior. However, it also means that we are more likely to lie (to others and ourselves) about our true meat consumption.

To get to the bottom of this, the Donanto Foundation sponsored a series of simple surveys in the US and Germany. Here is what we started with: “Please estimate: How much meat do you personally eat on average per day? (Please remember to include meat in frozen meals, convenience food, when eating out, cold cuts, etc.)”

We gave respondents seven answers to choose from and since people have trouble estimating meat weights, we explained each option briefly:

(Nerd note: We randomized this list of options for each respondent to eliminate potential order effects. The analysis was straightforward: If we have a sample of respondents that is representative of the overall population (aged 18+) and multiply the percentage frequency of each choice with its individual meat weight, we can add up the average per-capita meat consumption and compare it to the real average meat consumption.)

Personally, I was not surprised that respondents’ personal average was lower than the real average meat consumption. What did surprise me was just how much we are off: We actually eat 71% more meat than we think in Germany and 49% in the US.

To put this in perspective: Over the course of a year, each of us eats an additional five chicken, plus one-fifth of a pig, plus 2% of a whole cow more than we think (rough estimate based on the German meat mix). I am no psychologist, but perhaps this is an extension of the Dunning Kruger effect, where “people are typically overly optimistic when evaluating the quality of their performance on social and intellectual tasks”.

(Nerd note: You may think this is because respondents had trouble allocating their meat consumption to an average day. To check, we asked another 600 people the same question, only this time we asked for their meat consumption over an entire week. Lo and behold, the weekly respondents were even further away from reality than the daily ones!)

To test if we can eliminate the social desirability bias and tap the wisdom of the crowds, we repeated the survey with a slightly different question (in Germany): We asked respondents to estimate the daily meat consumption of the average person, not for themselves.

Well, what can I say, the wisdom of our crowd was much better than their personal estimate, but still not great overall: In reality, we still eat roughly 24% more than respondents estimated.

You probably noticed that I have been withholding the real meat consumption figures. So here comes this ugliest of truths: On average, each of us eats about 280 grams or roughly 10 oz of meat EVERY F***ING DAY! That’s in the US, in Germany, it amounts to 160 grams.

Wow. I’m going to let this sink in for a second.

Even after adjusting for some spoilage, plate waste, and other losses in grocery stores, restaurants, and homes, these numbers are still stunning, since they include everyone who cannot or will not eat meat.

OK, so excessive meat consumption is a major driver of climate change (and bad health), yet most of us fail to recognize how our own consumption is fueling this. Now let’s step back and think about what to do with this insight.

Here is a crazy thought: What about applying some learnings from smoking cessation programs? Smoking cessation has been under scientific scrutiny for decades, so there is a host of valuable knowledge out there, for example:

  1. Smoking cessation follows specific stages (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance), and “how much progress patients make after an intervention is directly related to what stage they are in prior to intervention”. If most meat-eaters are in denial about how much they really eat, perhaps we need to target earlier phases of their process.
  2. Over a hundred studies show that making tobacco more expensive is “a powerful tool for reducing tobacco use” and that tobacco taxes are not very regressive due to the high price sensitivity of low-income smokers. Therefore, the current discussion on increasing meat prices in Germany, e.g., by means of a surcharge to finance more animal-friendly farming (“Tierwohlabgabe”), may have a positive side effect.

If you are already in the “action” stage and would like to do something about your personal meat consumption, bear in mind to start small, but with consistency, for example, try to skip meat for lunch every Friday. If that works, move on to grander plans, like ProVeg’s free online 30-day Veggie Challenge. Good luck!

Categories
Climate Crisis

The stunning impact of frequent flying

My dear fellow frequent travelers – COVID-19 has grounded most of us (…and deprived us of bland lounge food).
In case you are wondering what the one thing is you can do to slow the climate crisis: LET’S….JUST…DON’T…FLY…AS MUCH when lockdowns lift!
The numbers tell a stunning story (check out the graph below): The flights that I would need to retain gold status at Lufthansa cause three times the CO2 footprint of an average German citizen!

Categories
Climate Crisis

How Our CO2 Journey Began

After I had offset the CO2 emissions of our family summer vacation, I also wanted to better understand what more we could do personally to cut our emissions. I found all sorts of resources on the web, but they seemed either much too broad or much too narrow in focus.

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Instead, I was looking for a concise, quantitative, prioritized list of key CO2 emission sources that I could concentrate on. I was so intrigued by this idea I even drafted a dummy version (see screenshot below):

My initial dummy list of personal levers to reduce my personal CO2 footprint

A number of specialized NGOs I contacted with this dummy version really liked the concept, but did not have anything ready to share. So I ended up researching the facts myself during one internal meeting that was particularly boring.

Turns out there is an incredible amount of well-researched data on CO2 emissions available out there at your fingertips! However, you really have to be a data-savvy expert to make sense of it! So I invested a few hours to research the most important facts and compiled them in a simple spreadsheet. Then I had an enthusiastic colleague (Carsten) help me out triple checking the facts and expanding the list.

That initial analysis contained quite a few surprises for me personally: For example, I had substantially under-estimated the CO2 impact of switching to a vegetarian diet! And I was very surprised to learn that avoiding plastic bags had basically zero impact on my CO2 emissions.

I started wondering if my fellow citizens had the same misconceptions on what were the key levers to cut personal CO2 emissions. Since easy-to-use insights were inaccessible and most lists lacked numbers, it seemed only natural that everyone would be just as clueless as myself.

Five surveys (with a total of more than 6,000 respondents in four countries) later, we were able to confirm that hypothesis! Our most striking finding: People across the world believe that avoiding plastic bags is actually by far the most important personal lever to cut CO2 emissions.

When we published those findings in a simple blog post on LinkedIn, things got really wild: the post generated 10x more views than my next best post and its core graph gathered thousands of likes on Reddit within a few hours. Within a few days, the story got picked up by multiple national media outlets as well as a few international ones like Wired UK or Treehugger.

Selected press coverage of our study results by Germany’s largest and most prestigious newspapers and magazines

The most beautiful and fun implementation of our findings was done by Handelsblatt, Germany’s leading business daily: Not only did they publish our insights in their “graph of the day” category covering two full pages, but they also created an animated version here.

Categories
Climate Crisis

What reduces our personal CO2 footprint? We have no clue!

Which personal action has the strongest impact on reducing the CO2 footprint of an average American or German? Turns out this question is surprisingly difficult to answer for most of us. And what are the next best five or ten things we should do to cut CO2? There is surprisingly little guidance out there. Because of that, I fear that we may not manage to cut emissions as much as we have to. That’s why Carsten and I did the legwork for you!

I have to admit that Greta got to me. Perhaps because I also have a daughter some consider to be on the spectrum as well (remember Greta’s hate speech at the UN?…“how dare you”…we get this regularly when we ask our daughter to lay the table). So what does a management consultant do if he wants to take personal action on CO2? Look for a concise, quantitative, prioritized list of key drivers that he can select from (since CO2 footprints differ by country, we looked for German information). There is a ton of information out there, but it is usually in one of the following categories:

  1. The “Everything-under-the-sun” list gives you too many items and does not prioritize even though the effects may differ by an order of magnitude.
  2. The “Energy saver” list has useful personal actions but focuses only on one aspect of your life, usually heating and/or electricity.
  3. The Calculator enables you to get to the bottom of your very own personal profile and simulate in great detail what effect individual actions would have. Classic German over-engineering that only a tiny group of zealots will ever use.
  4. The “Kill-yourself-and-your-family” list is very close to what we had in mind, but lists as the most important driver “Have one fewer child”. Seriously?! This is as factually correct as saying that if you kill yourself right now, you will achieve the biggest possible CO2 saving. Needless to say, including this lever in the infographic is a very dumb idea because it creates a backlash and destroys good intentions.

But thanks to all these lists and useful calculators, we were able to come up with the following overview quickly. It is still work-in-progress, not perfect at all, and sometimes we have conflicting data points, but hey, it’s a start.

We have grouped the actions into

  • what we can start doing today — in other words, actions that don’t take too much effort, like fuel-efficient driving
  • what takes more planning and preparation, like reducing the number of flights you take or switching to green electricity
  • what may take considerable investments, like switching to modern heating and insulating your home better.

As a vegetarian household with top-notch heating and insulation, with an electric car, green electricity, and no daily car commute, I can check off many actions on that list. However, some drivers were new to me, like washing clothes in cold water. The good news is that if I implement all these levers, I will achieve about 75% of the reduction target defined by the government for 2030! How cool is that?!

And now comes the bad news.

We asked 1500 Americans and 1500 Germans to select from a list of seven personal actions the one that has the strongest impact on reducing the CO2 footprint of an average person. Here comes the list:

  • Energy-efficient heating/cooling/insulation
  • Avoid one return trip by aircraft per year
  • Eat less red meat
  • Fuel-efficient driving
  • Buy local and seasonal produce
  • Unplug unused electronics to stop standby
  • No more plastic bags

We presented the list to respondents in a randomized order, but the list above is in descending order of impact. For example, in Germany, the impact of energy-efficient heating & insulation on our CO2 footprint is a whopping 250 times bigger than stopping to use plastic bags.

Guess which action was selected most often in Germany? “No more plastic bags”! Seriously?!

Here is the drama in all its gory details:

We were hoping that this is due to Germany’s unique obsession with recycling trash since the 1980s. But “no more plastic bags” actually made it to number 2 on the list in the US as well, very close behind fuel-efficient driving. Here is the comparison between both countries:

It is difficult to say who is more clueless because both countries have their specific blind spots: That “one flight less per year” comes out so low in the US is just as ridiculous as the fact that meat consumption is not seen as a source of CO2 in Germany.

I wish I had taken the survey myself before doing the math on the actual drivers. I am certain I had my fair share of ignorance! For example, I grossly overestimated the effect of having no daily commute to work.

But we are not here to poke and pry, but rather to drive action! So now that I know all the numbers, I have pledged to substantially reduce my flights!