Carbon Capability: what does it mean, how prevalent is it, and how can we promote it?

This Working Paper introduces the concept of ‘carbon capability’, provides initial empirical evidence of levels of carbon capability amongst the UK public, and suggests ways in which carbon capability might be promoted. ‘Carbon capability’ captures the contextual meanings associated with carbon, whilst also referring to an individual’s ability and motivation to reduce emissions within the broader institutional and social context. We identify three dimensions of carbon capability: (1) cognitive (knowledge, skills, motivations, etc.), (2) individual behaviour (e.g., energy conservation) and (3) broader engagement with systems of provision and governance (e.g., lobbying, voting, protesting). In this sense, carbon capability contrasts with the narrower, more individualistic concept of carbon literacy. Carbon capability is an analogue to financial capability applied to human-caused climate change, and involves managing budgets, planning ahead, staying informed, and making choices. We also draw on the literature pertaining to public understanding of science, and argue that carbon capability implies a situated understanding of carbon.

Results of a postal survey (N=550) of residents in Norfolk and Hampshire, UK, are presented, which suggest low levels of carbon capability amongst the public. In terms of the three dimensions of carbon capability: (1) People talk about carbon in abstract terms, others are blamed for climate change, and carbon emissions are rarely linked to personal actions and lifestyles choices. Misperceptions also exist about the relative contribution of activities to causing climate change; and very few people have used a carbon calculator. (2) Few are taking significant steps to lead a low-carbon lifestyle. This is despite a majority claiming to be interested in actions individuals can take to address climate change. (3) Importantly, few citizens consider political action (e.g. writing to their MP) a valid response to tackling climate change.

Together this indicates that individuals would benefit from education to promote understanding and skills to manage their carbon emissions, as well as structural measures to enable and encourage carbon capability. Two strands of ongoing work to promote carbon capability, relating to ‘materialising’ and ‘budgeting’ carbon emissions, are described.

Whitmarsh, L., S. O'Neill, G. Seyfang, and Lorenzoni. I