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The environmental impact of individual behavior: Self-assessment versus the ecological footprint

Brent Bleys (UGent) , Bart Defloor (UGent) , Luc Van Ootegem (UGent) and Elsy Verhofstadt (UGent)
(2017)
Author
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Abstract
An increasing number of studies have highlighted the urgent need for policies that promote environmental sustainability. Steffen et al. (2015) report that we have transgressed four of nine planetary boundaries (climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system changes and altered biogeochemical cycles), while the World Wildlife Fund (WWF, 2014) reveals that we need 1.5 Earths to meet our current demands on nature as measured by the ecological footprint. As most environmental problems are rooted in human behavior (see, for instance, Gardner and Stern, 2002), social and behavioral research is crucial to address the issue of environmental sustainability (Pelletier, Lavergne & Sharp, 2008; Vlek & Steg, 2007). Changes in human behavior are needed to reduce environmental impacts (e.g., Steg & Vlek, 2009). In this regard, it is often argued that governments should look for ways to promote pro-environmental behavior. Yet, one of the preconditions for this is that individuals have a good understanding of the environmental impact of their own behaviour and of the environmental impact of pro-environmental activities (e.g. recycling or saving energy). The literature on pro-environmental behavior (e.g. Gifford & Nilsson, 2014) explores mainly how to measure this behaviour and its determinants (e.g. socio-demographic variables and attitudes towards the environment), but focuses less on the related environmental impacts (Csutora, 2012; Kennedy et al., 2015). Our paper addresses this issue by (a) relating the determinants identified in this literature to a comprehensive measure of an individual’s impact on the environment, the Ecological Footprint (EF) and (b) comparing the individuals’ EF with how they assess their own environmental impact, which we call ‘self-assessed environmental sustainability (SAES)’. The latter allows us to explore to what extent people are able to self-assess the environmental impacts of their lifestyles. We investigate the determinants of the EF and the SAES for a sample in Flanders, Belgium (N = 1286). Our results show first that mainly socio-demographic factors play a role in explaining the environmental impact of individuals: age and equivalent income are associated with a larger EF, whereas the number of people living in the house is found to be negatively associated to EF. Personality traits are found to be nonsignificant in the model, while the impact of attitudes towards the environment is more ambiguous. Individuals who are more concerned about the environment were found to have a lower EF, yet knowledge about environmental problems is not associated with the EF. Next, our study reveals that environmental sustainability is a difficult concept to self-assess. as the correlation between the EF and the SS is small. However, when we take a closer look at the correlations between SAES and the different components of the EF, two interesting observations emerge. First, it suggests that individuals, when answering the SAES question, focus on specific aspects of their behavior – e.g. the components food, electricity, and paper use are negatively correlated with SAES, whereas the correlations between the heating, car use, and holidays components and SAES are not significantly different from zero and the use of public transportation is positively correlated to SAES. Second, correlations are more likely to be significant when the actions underlying the different components are undertaken more actively, or on a day-to-day basis. Finally, we reveal that the respondents’ self-assessed sustainability is mainly driven by variables other than their ecological footprint. Here we introduce the concept of judgment bias: individuals judge their level of environmental impact in the wrong way. Several of the traditional determinants of pro-environmental behavior can be linked to the judgment bias – e.g. individuals who are highly educated were found to underestimate their environmental sustainability. We find that the SAES answers mainly reflect concern for the environment or the extent to which they are informed about environmental problems, not their actual behavior. These findings imply that governments should be actively participating in the sustainability transition. They can do so by promoting policies to lower the environmental impact of our societies, by informing citizens about the environmental consequences of their actions, and by highlighting the different options citizens have to reduce their ecological footprints. As for the research field working on pro-environmental behavior, our analysis strengthens the call of Csutora (2012) and Kennedy et al. (2015) that we should broaden our scope and not only focus on explaining the likelihood of individuals to engage in different types of environmental behavior, but also on the environmental impact they have through their lifestyle. Bibliography Csutora, M. (2012). One more awareness gap? The behavior–impact gap problem. Journal of Consumer Policy 35, 145 – 163. doi:10.1007/s10603-012-9187-8 Gardner, G., & Stern, P. (2002). Environmental problems and human behavior. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing. Gifford R., & Nilsson A. (2014). Personal and social factors that influence pro-environmental concern and behaviour: a review. International Journal of Psychology, 49(3), 141 – 157. Kennedy, E.H., Krahn, H., & Krogman, N.T. (2015). Are we counting what counts? A closer look at environmental concern, pro-environmental behavior, and carbon footprint, Local Environment, 20(2), 220 – 236. doi:10.1080/13549839.2013.837039 Pelletier, L. Lavergne, K., & Sharp, E. (2008). Environmental psychology and sustainability: Comments on topics important for our future. Canadian Psychology 49(4), 304 – 308. doi:10.1037/a0013658 Steffen W., Richardson K., Rockström J., Cornell S. E., Fetzer I., Bennett E. M., Biggs R., Carpenter S. R., de Vries W., de Wit C. A., Folke C., Gerten D., Heinke J., Mace G. M., Persson L. M., Ramanathan V., Reyers B., & Sörlin S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347(6223): 1259855. doi:10.1126/science.1259855 Steg, L., & Vlek, C. (2009). Encouraging pro-environmental behavior: An integrative review and research agenda. Journal of Environmental Psychology 29(3), 307 – 317. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.10.004 Vlek, C., & Steg, L. (2007). Human behavior and environmental sustainability: Problems, driving forces and research topics. Journal of Social Issues, 63(1), 1 – 19. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.2007.00493.x WWF (2014). Living Planet Report 2014: Species and spaces, people and places. Gland, Switzerland: WWF International.

Citation

Please use this url to cite or link to this publication:

Chicago
Bleys, Brent, Bart Defloor, Luc Van Ootegem, and Elsy Verhofstadt. 2017. “The Environmental Impact of Individual Behavior: Self-assessment Versus the Ecological Footprint.” In .
APA
Bleys, B., Defloor, B., Van Ootegem, L., & Verhofstadt, E. (2017). The environmental impact of individual behavior: Self-assessment versus the ecological footprint. Presented at the 12th International Conference of the European Society for Ecological Economics.
Vancouver
1.
Bleys B, Defloor B, Van Ootegem L, Verhofstadt E. The environmental impact of individual behavior: Self-assessment versus the ecological footprint. 2017.
MLA
Bleys, Brent, Bart Defloor, Luc Van Ootegem, et al. “The Environmental Impact of Individual Behavior: Self-assessment Versus the Ecological Footprint.” 2017. Print.
@inproceedings{8540527,
  abstract     = {An increasing number of studies have highlighted the urgent need for policies that promote environmental sustainability. Steffen et al. (2015) report that we have transgressed four of nine planetary boundaries (climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system changes and altered biogeochemical cycles), while the World Wildlife Fund (WWF, 2014) reveals that we need 1.5 Earths to meet our current demands on nature as measured by the ecological footprint. As most environmental problems are rooted in human behavior (see, for instance, Gardner and Stern, 2002), social and behavioral research is crucial to address the issue of environmental sustainability (Pelletier, Lavergne \& Sharp, 2008; Vlek \& Steg, 2007). Changes in human behavior are needed to reduce environmental impacts (e.g., Steg \& Vlek, 2009). In this regard, it is often argued that governments should look for ways to promote pro-environmental behavior. Yet, one of the preconditions for this is that individuals have a good understanding of the environmental impact of their own behaviour and of the environmental impact of pro-environmental activities (e.g. recycling or saving energy). The literature on pro-environmental behavior (e.g. Gifford \& Nilsson, 2014) explores mainly how to measure this behaviour and its determinants (e.g. socio-demographic variables and attitudes towards the environment), but focuses less on the related environmental impacts (Csutora, 2012; Kennedy et al., 2015). 

Our paper addresses this issue by (a) relating the determinants identified in this literature to a comprehensive measure of an individual{\textquoteright}s impact on the environment, the Ecological Footprint (EF) and (b) comparing the individuals{\textquoteright} EF with how they assess their own environmental impact, which we call {\textquoteleft}self-assessed environmental sustainability (SAES){\textquoteright}. The latter allows us to explore to what extent people are able to self-assess the environmental impacts of their lifestyles. We investigate the determinants of the EF and the SAES for a sample in Flanders, Belgium (N = 1286). 

Our results show first that mainly socio-demographic factors play a role in explaining the environmental impact of individuals: age and equivalent income are associated with a larger EF, whereas the number of people living in the house is found to be negatively associated to EF. Personality traits are found to be nonsignificant in the model, while the impact of attitudes towards the environment is more ambiguous. Individuals who are more concerned about the environment were found to have a lower EF, yet knowledge about environmental problems is not associated with the EF. Next, our study reveals that environmental sustainability is a difficult concept to self-assess. as the correlation between the EF and the SS is small. However, when we take a closer look at the correlations between SAES and the different components of the EF, two interesting observations emerge. First, it suggests that individuals, when answering the SAES question, focus on specific aspects of their behavior -- e.g. the components food, electricity, and paper use are negatively correlated with SAES, whereas the correlations between the heating, car use, and holidays components and SAES are not significantly different from zero and the use of public transportation is positively correlated to SAES. Second, correlations are more likely to be significant when the actions underlying the different components are undertaken more actively, or on a day-to-day basis. Finally, we reveal that the respondents{\textquoteright} self-assessed sustainability is mainly driven by variables other than their ecological footprint. Here we introduce the concept of judgment bias: individuals judge their level of environmental impact in the wrong way. Several of the traditional determinants of pro-environmental behavior can be linked to the judgment bias -- e.g. individuals who are highly educated were found to underestimate their environmental sustainability. We find that the SAES answers mainly reflect concern for the environment or the extent to which they are informed about environmental problems, not their actual behavior. 

These findings imply that governments should be actively participating in the sustainability transition. They can do so by promoting policies to lower the environmental impact of our societies, by informing citizens about the environmental consequences of their actions, and by highlighting the different options citizens have to reduce their ecological footprints. As for the research field working on pro-environmental behavior, our analysis strengthens the call of Csutora (2012) and Kennedy et al. (2015) that we should broaden our scope and not only focus on explaining the likelihood of individuals to engage in different types of environmental behavior, but also on the environmental impact they have through their lifestyle.

Bibliography
Csutora, M. (2012). One more awareness gap? The behavior--impact gap problem. Journal of Consumer Policy 35, 145 -- 163. doi:10.1007/s10603-012-9187-8
Gardner, G., \& Stern, P. (2002). Environmental problems and human behavior. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing. 
Gifford R., \& Nilsson A. (2014). Personal and social factors that influence pro-environmental concern and behaviour: a review. International Journal of Psychology, 49(3), 141 -- 157.
Kennedy, E.H., Krahn, H., \& Krogman, N.T. (2015). Are we counting what counts? A closer look at environmental concern, pro-environmental behavior, and carbon footprint, Local Environment, 20(2), 220 -- 236. doi:10.1080/13549839.2013.837039
Pelletier, L. Lavergne, K., \& Sharp, E. (2008). Environmental psychology and sustainability: Comments on topics important for our future. Canadian Psychology 49(4), 304 -- 308. doi:10.1037/a0013658
Steffen W., Richardson K., Rockstr{\"o}m J., Cornell S. E., Fetzer I., Bennett E. M., Biggs R., Carpenter S. R., de Vries W., de Wit C. A., Folke C., Gerten D., Heinke J., Mace G. M., Persson L. M., Ramanathan V., Reyers B., \& S{\"o}rlin S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347(6223): 1259855. doi:10.1126/science.1259855
Steg, L., \& Vlek, C. (2009). Encouraging pro-environmental behavior: An integrative review and research agenda. Journal of Environmental Psychology 29(3), 307 -- 317. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.10.004
Vlek, C., \& Steg, L. (2007). Human behavior and environmental sustainability: Problems, driving forces and research topics. Journal of Social Issues, 63(1), 1 -- 19. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.2007.00493.x
WWF (2014). Living Planet Report 2014: Species and spaces, people and places. Gland, Switzerland: WWF International.
},
  author       = {Bleys, Brent and Defloor, Bart and Van Ootegem, Luc and Verhofstadt, Elsy},
  language     = {eng},
  location     = {Budapest, Hungary},
  title        = {The environmental impact of individual behavior: Self-assessment versus the ecological footprint},
  year         = {2017},
}