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Attitudes towards environmental issues have little impact on travel habits

Áróra Árnadóttir, PhD student at the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering

People's attitudes towards environmental issues appear to have little impact on the way they travel, according to the findings of recent research. "What we have seen, in both Helsinki and Reykjavík, is that attitudes towards environmental issues do not have a significant impact on how often people travel abroad or whether they drive or cycle to work. Those who live most centrally cause less pollution on a day-to-day basis by cycling, walking or taking the bus, compared to those living in the suburbs. But this is reversed when it comes to international travel, because those living centrally go abroad more than those living in the suburbs. Over a year, the carbon footprint from international travel is, on average, much higher than from driving a car," says Áróra Árnadóttir, PhD student at the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Áróra's doctoral project is entitled "Greenhouse gas emissions from urban lifestyles and the connection with urban design and attitudes towards environmental issues". She is part of a research team along with her supervisor, Jukka Taneli Heinonen, professor of environmental engineering, and Michal Czepkiewicz, postdoctoral researcher at the Engineering Research Institute. The findings of their research into the impact of environmental awareness have been published in Energies and a second article on environmental awareness and behaviour in residents of Reykjavík appeared in November in the journal Sustainability. The team investigated whether and how environmental concern affected people's travel habits and the environmental behaviour of households, such as conserving heat and electricity, shopping locally, buying organic food and environmentally friendly clothing.

Infrastructure design has a major impact on people's behaviour

The inspiration for the research was an interest in urban environments in a wider context. Áróra studied architecture before enrolling in the UI Master's programme in environment and natural resources, where she met Jukka Heinonen, who was researching urban environments and carbon footprints. "At this time there was a lot of fixation on urban densification, reducing emissions from daily transportation and finding ways to reduce household energy needs, e.g. with apartment blocks. I wanted to explore what it is in a person's immediate environment that makes them behave differently. As we can see that those living in denser urban environments fly more, I would ask: What is the cause of this? We can have a major impact on people's behaviour through the way infrastructure is designed, in terms of both architecture and town planning," says Áróra.

"Do we use more services if they are available, for example cafés, and do we buy more stuff because it is nearby? You can walk out of your home and there's a shop – are you then more likely to go in because it's right there in front of you?" asks Áróra.

Áróra Árnadóttir, PhD student at the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering

"If we continue to focus on urban densification, it is worth asking: If another area becomes denser, will this yield the same results? Is it something about densification itself that encourages this or the services that are available? Are we then actually encouraging more downtown attitudes? Do we use more services if they are available, for example cafés, and do we buy more stuff because it is nearby? You can walk out of your house and there's a shop, is it then more likely that you will go in because it's right there in front of you? I'm a downtown resident myself, I don't own a car and I relate to this, and it's a bit of a bummer to see how air travel is such a big part of our carbon footprint. I have set myself limits, though, decided not to take some flights I had planned and offset the carbon for the flights I do take," adds Áróra.  

"We also want to discover what it is that causes environmentally conscious people to travel so much, even though they are aware of the carbon footprint of air travel. We can see from the data that people connect international travel to cosmopolitanism, multilingualism and an interest in what's happening in other countries. People also mention the climate here in Iceland and a feeling of freedom that comes with travelling abroad. The next step is to delve into the data, continue to interview people and try to find further explanations," says Áróra.

Science and art work together

Finally, we thought about whether the book On Time and Water by Andri Snær Magnason, who is well-known for conveying complex information on the science of climate issues to the general public, could be an important opportunity for science and art to collaborate on helping the public understand this subject. "I think that science and the arts should be more closely involved with each other because they are in essence the same thing – art is often based on science and art helps people to understand. We can't just throw a load of numbers at people – we need to communicate using language we all understand and it is artists like Andri Snær who are so good at this, who know people and know what they need to hear," concludes Áróra.

Supervisor: Jukka Taneli Heinonen, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Iceland School of Engineering and Natural Sciences. 
Author of the article: Edda Rósa Gunnarsdóttir, Master's student in journalism.