Most people do not recognise agriculture as the main contributor of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while individual actions tend to be overestimated, a new report by the Economic and Social Research (ERSI) Institute has found.

While the public’s knowledge of the causes and effects of climate change is good, there is a lack of awareness of emissions caused in agriculture.

The study shows that one-in-three participants do not recognise the agriculture sector as a main contributor of GHGs in Ireland.

According to the government’s Climate Action Plan 2021, the agricultural sector is the single largest contributor to overall emissions, at 35.2%, representing over one third of Ireland’s total GHGs.

Emissions in agriculture

Almost all participants (88.6%) identified carbon dioxide (CO2) as a GHG, although one-in-four (76.4%) failed to identify methane.

Methane is the second most significant contributor – after CO2- to GHGs in Ireland and is primarily due to the agriculture sector and the large animal population, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

On a world scale, participants assumed energy use in industry (36.9%) to be the main polluter, followed by transport (29.0%) and agriculture and forestry (23.3%).

Human-made GHG emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land use account for 24% of global GHGs; electricity and heat production are the main contributor at 25%. Industry accounted for 21% and transport for 14%, according to the United Nations (UN).

Over one-third of participants are not aware that fertiliser and slurry release GHGs and two-thirds are unaware that disturbing soil (e.g. cutting down trees, ploughing) releases carbon into the atmosphere.

Almost 90% of respondents answered that livestock digesting food causes most GHGs in agriculture, followed by storing slurry (62.6%), applying fertiliser (60%), cutting down trees (38.7%) and tillage soil (27.6%).

Meat consumption

The report shows that understanding of the individual actions to mitigate climate change is poor. While most participants correctly identified climate-friendly actions, many people overestimated the benefits of low-impact actions and underestimated the benefits of high-impact ones.

Reducing meat intake is one of the most effective ways for an individual to reduce their carbon footprint according to the ESRI research, however only 34.4% rated switching to a plant-based diet as a high impact action, while 29.9% thought it has a low or moderate (35.7%) impact.

Results show that most participants overestimate the impact of buying local or organic food which are low-impact actions.

Over 70% of participants thought buying only local food has a moderate to high impact and almost 60% thought buying only organic food has a moderate to high impact.

Conducted study

The ESRI conducted a study including a multiple-choice quiz on the science of climate change involving 1,000 participants. The aim was to measure people’s understanding and willingness to change behavioural patterns to more climate-friendly ones.

The report ‘Public understanding of climate change and support for mitigation’ was recently published (Tuesday, January 25) by the ESRI.

The study conducted by Dr. Shane Timmons and Prof. Pete Lunn considered socio-demographic differences including the effects of gender, age, income, education, employment and location.