The Great Green Survey: Our readers share their views on the greatest issues of our time

Do you recycle? Avoid flying? Maybe you think buying local makes more of a difference? In an exclusive poll, our readers shared their views on the greatest issues of our time. Michael McCarthy introduces the results
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The Independent Online

Who's this a portrait of? Someone who recycles virtually all their waste; believes climate change is a truly urgent crisis and should be top of people's personal and political agendas, but thinks carbon-offsetting schemes are probably dodgy; believes Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, cares much more about the environment than his Tory rival, Boris Johnson; and can't make up their mind about whether nuclear energy should be used to fight global warming, or not.

No idea? Does it ring no bells? Well, to quote the original advert for the National Lottery, It Could Be You. For this is a portrait of a typical Independent reader and his or her attitudes to environmental questions, according to a detailed poll of the readership we have just carried out, interviewing nearly 1,000 respondents. It is fascinating in that it paints a very human picture of a group of people who have pretty strong basic green convictions, but are prone as well to doubt, and to wandering away from the environmental straight-and-narrow.

It also throws up surprising views on well-known individuals who might be considered green heroes by the Independent readership – with some hardly regarded at all, and others viewed with an astringent dose of cynicism.

Strongest of all those reader convictions is that we should recycle our waste. An astonishing proportion of Independent readers think that recycling is important – the merest fraction under 99 per cent. This is made up of 86.08 per cent of respondents who think it is "very important" and 12.9 per cent who think it is "quite important". So, do the maths – only one-hundredth of the readership think it's not worth bothering about. Parallel views are expressed about the need to reduce packaging (subject last year of a major Independent campaign), with a remarkable 96.7 per cent thinking it is an important issue.

These attitudes are reflected in actions, the poll shows. More than 90 per cent of readers "always" recycle paper, and almost the same number do the same for glass, with more than 80 per cent always recycling metal cans, and 67 per cent doing so with plastic (which is not quite so easy).

Why should people take recycling so seriously, especially when other actions that may have a direct bearing on the most important issue of all, climate change – such as switching energy supplies to green sources, avoiding air travel, using hybrid cars – are given a lower importance rating?

Perhaps it is because recycling is simple, tangible and visible, and we are all doing it anyway, as we are now forced to. It has become part of our lives. Since local authorities were given a statutory duty to bring in recycling in 2000, rates of recycling have leapt and the amount of our waste being reused has soared from a mere 7 per cent in 2000 – one of the worst levels in all of Europe – to something approaching 30 per cent. But whether it's compulsory or not, it's clear that an overwhelming majority of Independent readers think it's the right thing to do.

Independent readers, as one might expect, also feel very strongly about climate change, although compared with recycling this is a much more complex issue. More than four-fifths of people either "tend to agree" or "definitely agree" that it is "an urgent crisis that should be at the top of our personal and political agendas", with the "definites" totalling 53 per cent. (About 17 per cent are still not convinced that climate change matters, and feel that if the world is warming, this is just part of a natural cycle).

The liberal and internationalist attitudes of the readership are brought out in the very strong view that the rich nations should set an example in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The total who tend to, or definitely agree with this, comes to 88.6 per cent.

When it comes to acting personally on climate change, however, attitudes are far more nuanced. Take air travel, which makes a dramatic contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and the question of whether or not one should avoid it. Some green campaigners think this is vital, but the biggest sector of Independent readership opinion – a fraction under 50 per cent – views the issue as "quite" important. Only a quarter think it very important, with another quarter thinking it does not matter.

This might suggest a potential difference between attitude and behaviour, or the fact that when something causes real inconvenience – as avoiding flying may obviously do – then even people as climate-conscious as the readers of this newspaper can be reluctant to do it. The biggest group of responses to questions about travelling were the group of people – more than 35 per cent – who said they did not think of the carbon impact of travelling abroad. A mere 2.76 per cent of people said they had resolved to stop flying.

One option, of course, is to "offset" the greenhouse gas emissions generated by a given flight by paying for the absorption of carbon dioxide somewhere else, by example, through tree-planting schemes, or by buying "carbon credits" – a notional amount of greenhouse gases not emitted – from renewable energy schemes. However, Independent readers appear to be notably suspicious of the business of offsetting. Just under 53 per cent think that either the whole concept is flawed, or even if the idea is good, it will make little difference to emissions; a further 20 per cent think the idea is good but have never got round to it. Only about 8.4 per cent of people could be described as regular offsetters, from a group who might be expected to be among offsetting's most avid users.

Perhaps the most counter-intuitive of all the findings concerns the use of nuclear power, when respondents were asked what sources of energy the Government should be investing in. As might be expected with such a green-minded group, there were huge pro-majorities – in excess of 90 per cent in each case – for the renewables, wind, tidal and solar power. There were similar low votes for the carbon-producing fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas (10, 15 and 20 per cent of people in favour, respectively).

But when it came to nuclear, the picture was far more evenly balanced, with the largest group actually in favour – 35.4 per cent said Yes to atomic power, 32 per cent said No, and 32.6 per cent were Not Sure. Given The Independent's own anti-nuclear stance, this finding may be considered fairly surprising. Perhaps it indicates that some of the paper's readers are persuaded by the argument that climate change is so serious that all weapons must be used in the fight against it, including nuclear power – despite the problems it poses of waste disposal, radiation danger and the possibility of terrorists obtaining nuclear material.

There are also some similarly quirky findings in the Independent readership's view of eco-heroes. The highest recognition factors go to the former US vice-president and now Nobel prize-winning climate change campaigner, Al Gore, and Britain's leading naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough. In each case less than a third of 1 per cent of readers – three in a thousand – claim not to know who they are, which contrasts with the 1.44 per cent of readers who say they do not know who Tory leader David Cameron is, or the 0.72 per cent who seem to be ignorant of the identity of the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown – at least in the role of Green Defender.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governor of California, also scores a high recognition rate – only 1.34 per cent of readers answer, "Who's that?" – which is a stronger profile than that of the Prince of Wales, who has 2.58 per cent of readers in ignorance of him. Other green figures are less well-known. Nearly 28 per cent have never heard of Zac Goldsmith, millionaire editor of The Ecologist magazine and green guru to the Tory party; nearly 80 per cent do not know Peter Ainsworth, the Tory environment spokesman.

When it comes to trust, there are great variations again. The three positive categories – eco-hero/ achieved a lot/done more than most people – add up in the case of Sir David Attenborough to more than 80 per cent, with Al Gore scoring about 74 per cent, and these two are far above anyone else.

Contrast that with the politicians. Only 0.10 per cent of the readership – one in a thousand – would describe Gordon Brown as an "eco-hero", although 1.44 per cent would give the accolade to David Cameron. More than 26 per cent think the Prime Minister "doesn't really seem to care", but only 10.7 per cent think that about David Cameron. However, while more than 45 per cent think the PM "talks a good game, but his heart isn't in it", more than 57 per cent think this is true of the Tory leader.

The contrast is greater between the two London mayoralty candidates. More than 40 per cent of readers think Livingstone "cares more than most people" while only 11.3 per cent think this about Johnson. Just under 48 per cent think Boris "really doesn't seem to care" about the environment, but only 10.4 per cent think that about Ken. Among Independent readers, Ken is winning the green vote ahead of his rival.

The rock star Sting, celebrated in the 1990s as a defender of native tribes in the Amazon, does not get a huge thumbs-up from readers; only a third think he has made a worthwhile contribution to green causes, with two-thirds thinking he has made no difference.

Gerry Bell, university student advisor, Manchester, 50 [Female]

Recycling is something I feel strongly about. You have to be dedicated to the whole concept. It has become easier here in Manchester since we've had doorstep collections for glass, paper and cans, but plastic remains a problem. I think environmental issues should be addressed from primary school level, because if children grow up knowing they shouldn't chuck away plastic bags, they'll go on to be adults that will consider the environment. It's related to civic consciousness – I think concern for the environment is a civic duty.

Rebecca Lane, architecture student, London, 28

I worry about carbon emissions the most, so I try not to use a car or travel unnecessarily. I think being an architect gives you a vast responsibility – it is hard to make a building that's suitable for human occupation and also has a low impact on the environment. I do feel worried about issues such as global warming, but it's also hard to conceive of the planet ending. There's a part of me that can't believe it could happen.

Jennifer Sopwith, housewife, Norfolk, 60

I feel there's a lot of hype about environmental issues. In a way I feel the Government is using green issues as a way of raising money, rather than getting to the root of problem – which I think is overpopulation, but that's a no-go area. They're happy to fine people for putting the wrong sort of recycling in the bits, increase airport taxes – but these are money-raising exercises that in the long term won't do any good. How much can we really do on a day-to-day basis? I can see a backlash happening. I'm not in a position to dispute global warming and I do think we shouldn't despoil the planet, but I think the world has always had climate change. Anything we do on a light-bulb or recycling level isn't going to make a lot of difference.

Clare Jowett, NHS hospital manager, Welshpool, Wales, 48

It infuriates me that some people think global warming isn't an issue. I have a stream that runs through my garden and it never used to flood. Now it floods six times a year. I believe it's related to climate change. We're lucky, we have a wood-burning stove and are self-sufficient in logs. I also scavenge bits that come down in the stream. I haven't used additional plastic bags for 25 years. We went to Africa last year, and we did offset the carbon emissions. Some of those countries are dependent on tourism – that's another dilemma.

Julie Szoltysek, secondary school teacher, Whitley Bay, 40

I'm mostly interested in day-to-day issues. I recycle, but I know I could do more. I drive a small car that's fuel-efficient – and that's probably it. The energy-efficient light bulbs just don't seem to fit so I've not started using them yet. I've yet to be completely convinced about global warming, because there seems to be conflicting evidence. I find the whole concept of carbon-offsetting a bit ridiculous, really, I'm very sceptical about it.

Dr Jonathan Henderson, IT support, Edinburgh, 30

Although I'm interested in environmental matters, I accept there are arguments on both sides. But it's obvious we live on a planet with finite resources and we need to preserve biodiversity. Like a lot of people my age, I do the basics. I recycle and try not to waste energy needlessly. I commute by bicycle every day. I don't approve of unnecessary car journeys and it annoys me if people don't walk 15 minutes to the shops. I've got energy-saving light bulbs in the flat and I've switched electricity suppliers to a company that uses renewable sources. I think if the population could see that an extra £50 council tax was obviously going on better public transport – here in Edinburgh they have started a tram network, and things like that cost a lot of money – they might support it. But often it's not clear where such money goes.

Tim de Lay, business development manager, Blackburn, 39

Global warming should actually be called enhanced global warming – I come from a geography background and people get the terms wrong. If the big countries are just selling the carbon offsetting to countries that don't actually use the money to plant trees, it doesn't help. I think, if we've got areas of high pollution, we should be offsetting it by planting in this country. I think Al Gore's film just helped his back pocket – I'd rather listen to someone like Jonathon Porritt because of his background – and that's the difference between them. I also like Ken Livingstone, too, he's actually doing something – like the congestion charge and putting focus on public transport.

Dawn Ash-Kashani, office manager, Milton Keynes, 47

Milton Keynes is growing fast so I'm keen to do my bit, recycle and see houses built with solar panels – we all have to do our bit to bring down CO2 levels. I know that there are scientists that say global warming occurs in cycles, but I think it's a bigger issue now than it has ever been in the past, and that's down to what we're doing in the world. I haven't been abroad in six years. I can't say I'd never fly, because my husband's family live in the Middle East, but I do think aeroplanes are one of the biggest causes of the problems we've got. And America dragging its feet over Kyoto makes me very angry.

Martin Lowe, environmental scientist, Milton Keynes, 53

Altering the source of electricity to renewable sources of energy is going to be the only way to make a significant impact – but that's going to mean wind farms and probably an expanding nuclear programme. If we abandon fossil fuels there isn't really any alternative. And I do think we underestimate the impact of air travel – I've got no objections for people flying to Prague for the weekend but the prices are too low and don't reflect the impact aeroplanes make.

Mike Smith, retired GP, Worcester, 60

I do my bit by changing the light bulbs and I've recycled for several years. It's a pity they can't recycle more plastics. On a wider level, I'm concerned with the icecaps melting, the CO2 levels – the geographical issues. I think there are too many planes in the sky and too many cars on the roads – the Government says consumers should bear the cost of running the railways but the same doesn't seem to apply to road or air transport. You have to be a real flat-earther – or the American president – to deny global warming is happening.

Ed Thompson, product manager in financial services, Southampton, 43

The Government hasn't done enough about climate change – their policies aren't joined-up. Plans for nuclear power are up in the air. I think it seems to be the best of a bad lot, but it takes many years to build these things. There are various theories about wind or wave power, but I think nuclear is the only way to produce enough, although it comes at a cost. I'm not sure about carbon-offsetting – it seems like having your cake and eating it. I don't know how much difference recycling makes, but I still think you should do it. Basically, we have got to start planning for the future.

Interviews by Susie Rushton

* 1 in 3 readers say that carbon-trading schemes, though a good idea, make little difference

* 1 in 5think carbon trading a totally flawed concept

* 1 in 4 have used carbon trading

* 40% are tackling supermarket culture by buying locally produced food

* 45% are in the habit of refusing carrier bags

* 90% always recycle paper at home

* 57% do the same at work

* 61% have a composter at home

* 15% use a composter at work at least sometimes

* 40% recycle nothing but paper at work

* 11% have switched entirely to energy-efficient lighting at home

* 40% have homes that are entirely free of high-energy halogen lights

Who are you green heroes - and zeros?

Ken Livingstone

Does the London mayor really care about eco-issues? 41 per cent of you say that he does

Al Gore

The former US Vice President, and film-maker behind the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, got your approval – more than a third think he has made an applaudable contribution to the green cause

James Lovelock

The scientist whose Gaia hypothesis depicts the Earth as a complex, delicate organism is also well-thought of: almost a third say he's either an eco-hero or has at least achieved a lot

Arnold Schwarzenegger

35 per cent think the Governor of California has done "more than most people"

Prince Charles

Championing organic farming has helped HRH win over those surveyed – 29 per cent say he has done "more than most" to further the green cause

David Cameron

According to our readers, the bicycling leader of the Conservative party doesn't have much of a green side – 58 per cent of those polled think his heart isn't really in the eco cause

Gordon Brown

It's bad news for Brown too – 45 per cent think that the Prime Minister merely "talks a good game"

Zac Goldsmith

Some 19 per cent think that the Ecologist editor and Tory advisor has made little real impact


Almost a third of those surveyed think that the soft-rocking rainforest campaigner has made no difference at all

Peter Ainsworth

The wooden spoon goes to the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment – 79 per cent of those polled don't know who he is, and three-quarters of those who do think he is more zero than hero