The next generation of Irish 16 to 24-year-olds (Gen Z) appears to believe restrictions on many types of behaviour are needed for climate mitigation. So says the ESRI’s recent report called Youth Knowledge and Perceptions of Climate Mitigation.
These restrictions involve a ban on domestic flights and a limit on the number of flights a person can take in a year, as well as a ban on cars in certain parts of towns and city centres.
The demands propose banning the use of environmentally harmful subsidies in the production and import of goods, even if it leads to everyday products becoming more expensive.
They also advocate lower taxes for imported goods that are carbon neutral (with higher taxes for ones that aren’t) as well as higher taxes on meat. Other tax rises are proposed for petrol and diesel to fund more public transport, with higher taxes on homes that are not energy efficient, as well as fines for businesses that have emissions above a certain level.
The report is notable for only proposing the use of coercive approaches to bring about these changes, with no room there for incentives or personal choice. But closer inspection shows these findings only arose in response to a highly selective and narrowly focussed set of leading questions.
In reality, these reported results are only the views and values of the researchers, with the resultant headlines merely a reporting of the preferred ranking of choices presented to participants. The line between research and activism is becoming increasingly blurred and the blurring is not just confined to individuals, but to agencies too.
Activism, no matter how noble and urgent the cause, is a poor bedfellow for authorities responsible for data gathering. It must be a matter of the deepest concern when those authorities also exercise decision-making powers. Imagine being tried by a judge who is also an activist?
The report sought to focus on Gen Z’s knowledge and beliefs about climate mitigation. It found their understanding of the relative impact of different pro-environmental behaviours is poor, underestimating high-impact behaviours and overestimating low-impact behaviours.
These findings are striking for two reasons. Firstly, the report’s proposals are centred mostly on the behaviours of older people who own homes and cars or shop for groceries. Two of the 10 proposals focus on flying, with no focus on the emissions of digital activity, which emits the same amount as the entire aviation sector.
Secondly the report is utterly silent on activities that are most prevalent among this first fully digital generation. The reported underestimation of high-impact behaviour completely failed to discuss Gen Z’s obliviousness to the environmental impact of activities such as their social media use, online shopping or eating habits.
Other ESRI surveys have shown over half of all 20-year-olds said they typically spend over three hours online per day, with over one fifth spending five hours or more online. Studies in the US have shown on-demand video services account for a third of video streaming carbon footprint while another third is used for watching YouTube and clips on social media.
The final third (the equivalent of Belgium’s entire annual carbon emission) is used for watching pornography. Globally, IT’s greenhouse gas emissions are predicted to reach 14pc of all emissions by 2040, while in Ireland, some estimate that within the next decade data centres — the home of all online activity — could consume 30pc of the country’s overall electricity consumption.
Gen Z are prolific online shoppers, and online shopping now accounts for a quarter of all retail purchases, but around 40pc of these are returned, with most returns being dumped, causing pollution — not to mention the waste of raw material and energy used to make them.
This generation has very strong views on the ethics of food, especially meat and dairy, as reflected in the report. However, this concern rarely extends to the sustainability of their favoured foods.
Ireland imports about €20m of avocados each year — these each release 423g of CO2 emissions, not to mention the links to deforestation and water overuse, while soy has strong links with deforestation in South America. In Brazil alone, 29pc of emissions are due to soy production.
Imagine how different the results might be had the ESRI posed more age-appropriate challenges for Gen Z?
These might include proposals such as a ban on online shopping or a limit on the number of online purchases that can be returned in a year; or a ban on importing avocados, acai, soy or tuna.
A more balanced survey might also seek views on tax proposals, such as higher taxes on internet usage for social media, gaming or photo storage, as well as more taxes on food with high air-miles.
For those with strong beliefs about energy, the proposals should consider making it mandatory for renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar companies, to also provide energy when there is no wind or sun.
A final and most relevant consideration here is that all of the impactful activities of Gen Z involve non-productive leisure activities, while they focus on targets for limiting, banning and taxing the economically productive or socially necessary activities of older generations.
Navigating toward solutions is difficult enough for every generation. Navigation with no data or bad data is impossible. There is no right answer to a wrong question.