Ruling

Resolution Statement — 00569-24 Science Feedback v Mail Online

  • Complaint Summary

    Science Feedback complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Now scientists say BREATHING is bad for the environment: Gases we exhale contribute to 0.1% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions”, published on 13 December 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      5th June 2024

    • Outcome

      Resolved - IPSO mediation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Resolution Statement — 00569-24 Science Feedback v Mail Online


Summary of Complaint

1. Science Feedback complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Now scientists say BREATHING is bad for the environment: Gases we exhale contribute to 0.1% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions”, published on 13 December 2023.

2. The article reported on a scientific study. It stated, “humans can do many things to help prevent climate change. Unfortunately, breathing less isn't one of them.” It went on to report, “a new study claims the gases in air exhaled from human lungs is fueling global warming”. It also said, “methane and nitrous oxide in the air we exhale makes up to 0.1 per cent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, scientists say.” Later on, it stated "concentrations of the two gases in the overall samples let the researchers estimate the proportion of the UK's emissions are from our breath - 0.05 per cent for methane and 0.1 per cent for nitrous oxide. [Named scientist] stresses that each of these percentages relate specifically to these respective gases, not all of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions as a whole." 

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because it had misrepresented the results of the study it was based on. He said the headline was inaccurate to state the "gases we exhale contribute to 0.1% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions"; he said this was approximately eight times greater than the value the authors of the study estimated, which was 0.013%; the study found that human breathing in the UK contributed only 0.0539 of the UK's 417 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2021. The complainant also said this inaccuracy was repeated in the statement, "methane and nitrous oxide in the air we exhale makes up to 0.1 per cent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, scientists say". He said methane and nitrous oxide are only two greenhouse gases, and when all other greenhouse gases are considered, the study estimated that human breathing contributed about 0.013% of the UK's emissions. The complainant said the inaccuracy was demonstrated by the statement included later in article's main body, which was contradictory: "concentrations of the two gases in the overall samples let the researchers estimate the proportion of the UK's emissions are from our breath - 0.05 per cent for methane and 0.1 per cent for nitrous oxide. [Named scientist] stresses that each of these percentages relate specifically to these respective gases, not all of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions as a whole." 

4. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report "a new study claims the gases in air exhaled from human lungs is fueling global warming". He said the study did not claim nor imply this, and that the factors fueling global warming, such as emissions from energy, transport, and land use, are already well-known and quantified based on robust global datasets. The complainant said, for instance, burning fossil fuels alone has been estimated to contribute over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and fuelled global warming by enhancing the greenhouse effect.

5. The publication accepted the headline arguably implied the figure of 0.1% referred to the totality of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and not the individual gases cited in the article - nitrous oxide and methane. It said some confusion had arisen following an ambiguously worded headline on a press release which disseminated the study. The press release read:

· methane and nitrous oxide we exhale might contribute - in a very small way - to greenhouse gas emissions, with breath analysis indicating this may comprise up to 0.1% of UK emissions of the gases.

6. In the interest of resolving the complaint, the publication amended the headline to state “Scientists say gases we exhale simply by BREATHING contribute to 0.013% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions.” It also removed the sentence, “a new study claims the gases in air exhaled from human lungs is fueling global warming”.

7. It also added a footnote acknowledging the correction:

· article has been amended since it was first published to correct an error. The headline previously stated that 'Gases we exhale contribute to 0.1% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions'. In fact, as was stated in the copy, the research estimated the proportion of the UK's emissions from our breath are 0.05 per cent for methane and 0.1 per cent for nitrous oxide; each figure referring to the proportion of that specific gas.. As a percentage of the UK's total emissions the total contribution estimated from human breath is 0.013, as the headline now states.

8. The complainant did not accept this offer as a resolution to his complaint. He said the correction did not address the inaccurate claim that the new research showed breathing was bad for the environment or fueling global warming. The complainant also said given the article had been heavily altered, including its main message and its headline, a correction notice should appear at the top of the article under the headline, rather than just a footnote beneath the text.

Relevant Clause Provisions

Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Mediated Outcome

9. The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter.

10. During IPSO’s investigation the publication offered to add the following correction below the article’s headline: 

“The headline to this article previously stated that 'gases we exhale contribute to 0.1% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions'. In fact, the research estimated the proportion of the UK's emissions from human breathing to be 0.05 per cent for methane and 0.1 per cent for nitrous oxide; each figure referring to the proportion of that specific gas. As a percentage of the UK's total emissions the contribution estimated from human breath is 0.013%. A reference to breathing ‘fueling’ global warning and being ‘bad for the environment’ has also been removed – for clarity, this was not what the research had found. We apologise for the confusion.”

11. The complainant said that this would resolve the matter to his satisfaction.

12. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.


Date complaint received: 06/02/2024

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 25/04/2024