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  • (Illustration: Pekka Kaikkonen.)

Environmental awareness is at a good level, but actions do not always reflect attitudes

Cities have adopted an active role in influencing global environmental issues and climate change, and consequently the opinions of city residents and their consumption patterns and choices are important as cities steer their activities in a more ecological direction. According to an environmental attitudes survey conducted in Helsinki and Vantaa, eco-friendly attitudes are common and there is even willingness to pay more for the environment, but the extent to which city residents’ everyday choices reflect these attitudes is mixed.

In 2017, the cities of Helsinki and Vantaa conducted a joint study on the environmental attitudes and behaviour of their residents. The data was obtained through an extensive resident survey (N = 1,560) directed at the adult population. The survey also examined, for example, environmental attitudes and environmental behaviour as well as connections between the two. This article presents some of the results of the survey. The analysis focuses on attitudes regarding climate change and some forms of environmental behaviour, in particular energy conservation at home, the avoidance of buying new items, as well as food-related choices. Results of the project are presented more extensively in the recently published report (Hirvonen & Vanhatalo 2018).

Both Helsinki and Vantaa have a long tradition of environmental attitudes surveys. A corresponding survey was first conducted in Vantaa in 2009 (Kristiansson 2011) and in Helsinki in 2011 (Hakkarainen & Koskinen 2011). Another useful set of data for comparison and reference for this survey came from survey data collected from the entire Helsinki Region in 2001 (Heikkinen et al. 2004). The analysis of this article includes environmental attitudes survey respondents from both Helsinki and Vantaa.

Good general awareness of climate change

Environmental issues feature clearly in the strategies and plans of Helsinki and Vantaa. For example, both cities aim to achieve carbon neutrality on a fairly rapid timetable. The environmental attitudes of the residents play an important role in achieving these aims. The questionnaire included a set of statements for mapping general environmental attitudes, such as concern about climate change and other environmental problems, views about the relationship between the environment and economic growth as well as awareness of personal responsibility and willingness to make sacrifices for the environment.

Figure 1. Responses to statements about the environment and growth. (Source: Helsinki and Vantaa environmental attitudes survey.)

Many of the respondents were concerned about global overpopulation (Figure 1). Two out of three at least somewhat agreed with the statement that we are approaching the limit of the number of people the planet can support, and only 14% disagreed. Another statement weighed the environment and economic growth as values – which should be weighted more if the two were pitted against each other? Based on the responses, a clear majority of the respondents – approximately four out of five – would favour the environment in such cases. Only 8% disagreed, apparently prioritising economic growth, and 14% neither agreed nor disagreed. However, nearly as many felt that it is possible to protect the environment and have economic growth at the same time. Young respondents were the most likely to agree with the statement. When this result is compared to earlier studies, it can be summarised that, in the long term, the number of respondents with this opinion has increased in the Helsinki Region (Heikkinen et al. 2004) as well as nationwide (Toivonen 2013). A possible interpretation is that economic growth is no longer considered to inevitably increase the consumption of material, or at least of natural resources, as much as before. Growth could also take place through the strengthening of the circular economy.

Figure 2. Concern about global environmental problems

Concern about global environmental problems was common among the respondents (Figure 2). Almost half of the respondents were “very concerned” about climate change and one-third were “fairly concerned”, amounting to a total of 80%. Only a few per cent were not at all concerned. However, this is not a new phenomenon, as the concern was already at the same level in the Helsinki Region resident survey conducted in 2001 (Heikkinen et al. 2004). Concern about deforestation and extinction of species was at around the same level. Indeed, these three issues are closely intertwined.

Figure 3. Responses to statements about climate change

Several questions about climate change generated a clear general opinion among the respondents (Figure 3). Firstly, climate change was considered to result from human activities. Secondly, its effects were primarily seen as negative, and thirdly, people felt that their own actions mattered in fighting it. Based on the responses, a clear majority, about two out of three respondents, would also be ready to make personal financial sacrifices in the form of taxes or fees if they would be “earmarked” for fighting climate change. A little under one-fifth disagreed with this, and roughly the same number neither agreed nor disagreed.

A combined attitude indicator, which was named “climate change awareness”, was formed from the data. This sum variable included the four aforementioned statements and the question about climate change concern. The indicator’s reliability was high (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.77). It – and the other indicators formed from the data – were scaled to vary between 0 and 10; the higher the value, the higher the climate change awareness. Later on, this indicator will be used as an explanatory variable when studying connections between attitudes and behaviour.

Energy conservation at home is important for older respondents

In terms of environmental behaviour, the survey first enquired about some factors related to energy conservation at home. Next, it mapped how commonly different forms of the circular and sharing economy were practised.

Some energy conservation methods were more common than one might expect: nearly all respondents stated that they usually switch off unnecessary lights, use energy-saving light bulbs and only wash full loads of laundry. Apparently, the significance of these energy conservation methods is common knowledge. They are also fairly easy everyday choices that everyone can manage with little effort.

Figure 4. Responses to some questions on environmental behaviour

However, there was more dispersion regarding some issues related to household energy conservation (Figure 4), such as consideration of the power consumption of appliances upon purchase as well as active monitoring of indoor temperature and power consumption. Roughly two out of three respondents did these at least occasionally. These three items also have a clear correlation, so they were formed into a sum variable named “intensity of household energy conservation”. Building type explained the values obtained by this indicator fairly strongly; people living in detached houses, in particular, were invested in monitoring and influencing energy consumption at home this way. This is not surprising, since owners of detached houses have much more control over energy choices – the costs fall directly on them and they often have more living space, which creates pressure to control costs. However, the person’s age was an even stronger explanatory variable.

The older the respondent, the more aware they were about acting to minimise energy consumption at home. Age was a clear explanatory variable even after the building type was controlled for.

Another sum variable connected to environmental behaviour was formed from the following points: “I prefer to borrow or lease instead of owning and “I prefer buying second-hand goods over brand new”. Over one-half of respondents practised these at least occasionally. We named this indicator “avoidance of buying new items”. It can be considered to reflect the idea of the sharing and circular economy.

It was to be expected that income level was a fairly strong explanatory variable of the values obtained in this indicator. People with low income were more likely to not purchase new items than people with high income. A less obvious result was that age and educational level predicted the values of the indicator even after controlling the income level; young and highly-educated persons were more open to these forms of the circular and sharing economy. Similar results were previously obtained in Helsinki regarding one form of the sharing and circular economy: consumer-to-consumer commerce. It was most popular among young adults and high educational attainment, while pensioners and persons with lower educational attainment had more reservations about it (Lindblom & Mustonen 2016).

Figure 5. Avoidance of buying new items in the surveys of 2001 and 2017, by age group

When comparing with the survey conducted in the Helsinki Region in 2001 (Figure 5), we can see that younger respondents under 40 years, in particular, were more likely to avoid buying new items than similar age groups in the earlier survey (Heikkinen et al. 2004). For respondents over 50 years, the difference between the survey years was rather the opposite. This suggests generational interpretation – the idea of the sharing and circular economy has gained ground, especially among the younger generation.

The most interesting result was that these two indicators – household energy conservation and the avoidance of buying new items – only have a very weak correlation (r = 0.12). These forms of environmental behaviour were therefore independent dimensions and do not agglomerate on the same persons.

Vegetarian diet increasingly common among young generations

One part of environmental behaviour is food-related choices. We asked how much attention the respondent pays to minimising food waste and eating local or vegetarian food. These are all significant for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Häkkinen & Kangas 2012). Minimising food waste was the most common food-related environmental act among the respondents. Four out of five respondents (80%) stated that they plan their grocery shopping at least “fairly often” with the aim of minimising food waste. Some 36% of respondents ate vegetarian food and 30% ate local food at least “fairly often”.

Eating vegetarian food was significantly more common among women than men. Roughly one-half (48%) of women but only one-fifth (20%) of men ate vegetarian food at least “fairly often”. Eating vegetarian food was also explained by educational level. The higher the person’s educational level, the more likely they were to eat vegetarian food. Vegetarian food was eaten “fairly often” by 45% of respondents with a higher education degree but by merely 25% of respondents with only basic education.

Figure 6. Eating vegetarian food in the surveys of 2001 and 2017, by age group

There seem to be generational differences in eating vegetarian food (Figure 6). A significantly larger share of respondents under 40 years old today ate vegetarian food than respondents in that age group in 2001. Although the latest survey’s target area was not identical to that of the previous survey, the difference was clear enough to draw this conclusion. In the new data, vegetarianism grew less common with age up to the 50–59-year-olds but took a slight upturn again among respondents aged 60 years or older. In 2001, the dependence on age was completely different; back then, vegetarianism increased consistently with age after the age of 30 years.

Climate change awareness as explanatory variable

What, then, was the relationship between attitudes and behaviour? To what extent are eco-friendly attitudes realised in eco-friendly choices? Cause-and-effect relationships cannot really be proven from this kind of survey data, but we can nevertheless study the correlation between attitudes and behaviour through statistical dependence. The correlation coefficient is one of the key figures indicating the strength of the dependence. The climate change awareness correlation r with home energy conservation intensity was quite modest at only 0.11. The correlation with avoidance of buying new items was slightly higher (r = 0.25) but still fairly low.

Figure 7. Mean of the two indicators based on climate change awareness

Graphic analysis of dependences (Figure 7) gave a similar result: positive but weak. In an earlier phase of the study, it was demonstrated through regression analyses that climate change awareness was left with little predictive power for the values of both indicators, even after the relevant background variables are controlled for (Hirvonen & Vanhatalo 2018).

The correlation of climate change awareness to eating local food was 0.26, and its correlation to minimising food waste was 0.16. The correlations were positive and statistically significant, although not very high. The graphic dependence analysis draws a similar picture (Figure 8). Indeed, there is a second, probably stronger motivator for minimising food waste: saving money.

Figure 8. Commonness of food-related choices based on climate change awareness

On the other hand, there was a relatively high correlation (r = 0.41) between eating vegetarian food and climate change awareness. The graph shows that their dependence is roughly linear. In the category with the lowest climate change awareness, vegetarian food was eaten at least “fairly often” by only a few per cent but, in the category with the highest climate change awareness, it was nearly 70%. The connection is logical in that the climate effects of animal products, especially beef and dairy, are significantly higher than those of vegetarian options.

Eating vegetarian food was taken under further analysis. It was revealed above that there are many dependences in the background connected partly to the respondent’s socio-demographic background and partly to attitude factors. The preference of vegetarian options was studied more closely using logistical regression analysis in order to specify the independent explanatory power of certain factors. There was particular interest in the extent to which climate change awareness still had explanatory power left once the key background variables were controlled for. The analyses and their results are presented in more detail at the end of this article. Logit analysis demonstrated that climate change awareness had strong explanatory power for eating vegetarian food, even after three key background variables were controlled for.

The attitudes among the respondents proved be very eco-friendly indeed, and awareness of climate change proved strong. But to what extent do attitudes and behaviour align, and to what extent does each “have a life of their own”? This article introduced three dimensions of environmental behaviour: household energy conservation, avoidance of buying new items, and food-related choices. Climate change awareness predicted all three, but to very different degrees. In terms of household energy conservation and avoidance of buying new, the predictive power was weak. However, it was a strong explanatory variable for eating vegetarian food. In conclusion, we can state that although general environmental awareness was high, the extent to which everyday behaviour reflects the attitudes was mixed.

Logit analysis: which factors explain eating vegetarian food?

In the logistic regression analysis done for this article, the dependent variable was coded as follows: 1 = eats vegetarian food at least “fairly often”, 0 = eats it seldom or never. Independent variables of the analysis included the respondent’s sex, educational level, age, and climate change awareness. Educational level and climate change awareness were treated as continuous variables. The classified age data was formed into five binary variables (or dummy variables).

Table: The ORs produced by the logit analysis and other key figures, with eating vegetarian food as the dependent variable.

Logistic regression produces an odds ratio (OR) key figure for each independent variable. A figure above 1 indicates a positive dependence between the independent variable and dependent variable, while a figure under 1 indicates a negative dependence. For example, in Model 1, the educational attainment OR = 1.20, which means that a higher educational level increases the likelihood of eating of vegetarian food. However, the ORs received by different independent variables are not directly comparable with each other because they depend on the measurement units of the variables.

In the first phase, one variable at a time serves as the independent variable (models 1–4). All four variables explained the eating of vegetarian food significantly. The table presents two key figures that describe the suitability of the models. The superiority of the models can be approximately determined based on them. The first of these is the Nagelkerke R Square; the closer to 1 this key figure is, the more suitable the model is. The second key figure, -2 Log likelihood, indicates the suitability of the model in that the closer it is to 0, the better the model is. It can be deduced from these figures that climate change awareness was the best independent variable for eating vegetarian food, with the respondent’s sex as the second best. Age and educational attainment were weaker independent variables but still statistically significant.

During the second phase, three background variables were placed into the same model as independent variables: age, sex and educational level (Model 5). The overall picture has not changed very much compared to the models of separate background data explanatory factors. The model predicted correctly in 66% of cases.

In the third phase, climate change awareness was added to the previous model as an independent variable (Model 6). The suitability of the model improved significantly from the previous model according to both key figures. The predictive power of certain variables (the respondent’s sex, youngest age group) decreased somewhat, but all the significant independent variables of the previous model remained significant. The model predicted correctly in 72% of cases.

Jukka Hirvonen works as Researcher at the Urban Research and Statistics Unit of the City of Helsinki Executive Office.


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