Screen Shot 2014-07-16 At 15.21.37

and the
say people concerned about climate change use more
electricity than those who think the issue is too distant to worry
about, according to new research.

The Telegraph quotes Conservative MP Peter Lilley:

“The survey exposes the
hypocrisy of many who claim to be ‘green’: the greater the concern
people express about global warming the less they do to reduce
their energy usage.”

But Lilley’s strong conclusions are not supported by
the study in question, which comes with some significant caveats.
The researchers themselves say there’s no significant effect of
people’s beliefs:

“None of the stated attitudes
about environmental or climate change had any
significant impact on overall energy use when household age
was taken into account.”

Let’s take a look at what the study says, and what it

Small survey

The articles are based on a
survey and detailed study
of the electricity
use of 250 homeowners in England during 2010-11. The work was done
for the department of energy and climate change (DECC).

The survey measured the electricity consumption
of the households in some detail, monitoring use by TVs, lighting
and so on. This is expensive, which is why the survey was

The study also asked one member of each
household to answer questions about their energy use and their
environmental beliefs. One question asked if they agreed or
disagreed with the statement: “The effects of climate change are
too far in the future to really worry me.”

Age effects

The researchers plotted responses to this question against
average energy use. Respondents that “strongly agree” that climate
change is too far in the future to worry about also had the lowest
electricity use, as this chart shows.

Savings, belief and demographic change, report for DECC
, graph
by Carbon Brief

But the researchers said most of this
correlation was down to age effects. It turns out that pensioners
tend to be more careful with electricity use, and they are also
less likely to be worried by climate change.

If you remove the pensioners from the analysis,
only a weak correlation between climate concern and energy use
remains, the researchers say.

It’s also worth remembering that this is a now a sub-set of an
already small sample. There were only five households falling into
the ‘low electricity-using and unconcerned about climate change’
group, for instance.

The study says:

“Ideally there would
have been thousands or perhaps tens of thousands participating in
the study… the small sample makes it impossible to extrapolate
reliably to all homes, but it is a starting point.”

So we can’t make any reliable statements about
English households in general, based on this small survey alone.
Nicola Terry, one of the study authors tells Carbon

“It is unfortunate that
[the newspaper articles] have reported a link between climate
concern and electricity use as fact whereas in practice the trend
was probably not significant.”

Correlation is not causation

Another significant caveat noted by the study is
correlation is not the same as causation
. It
says “it is very seldom possible to infer unambiguous causality
from the correlation”. Height correlates with reading ability, but
that isn’t because being tall makes you better at reading – it’s
because children are short.

Might the apparent link between concern over
climate change and electricity use be better explained by other

The study looked at the factors with the largest
influence on household electricity use in the survey.
Socio-economic status, work status, the number of people in the
household and its floor area were the top determinants of
electricity use, they found.

Above-average users include households of socio-economic grade
‘A’, households that are large in area or number of people, and
those who are not working, as the chart below shows.

Below-average users include retired households and small
households. Households that say they’re not worried about climate
change feature too – but remember there were only five of those out
of a total of 250.

Savings, belief and demographic change, report for DECC
, graph
by Carbon Brief

In general the study found little correlation
between environmental beliefs and electricity use. It notes
covering 24 countries that found
countries where environmental concern was high tended to have lower
carbon emissions.

The same work found environmental concern
translates into certain activities at a personal level, like
recycling, but not into energy saving behaviour. Terry

“Being concerned about
climate change does not necessarily mean you feel motivated and
able to do something about it… A sizeable minority in our survey
agreed with the statement ‘Its not worth me doing things to help
the environment if others don’t do the same’, for

So it might be fair to
, as the Telegraph do in another piece,
that we humans are all mouth and no trousers. On the basis of this
English home survey, however, we can’t really