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Get Ready for Sticker Shock Carbon Therapy

Carbon labeling shifts consumer behavior. But does that actually translate to fewer emissions?
June 2, 2022

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Knowing the fat and salt content of a bag of chips enables healthier dietary choices—but doesn’t guarantee it. The same is true of carbon labeling. At a glance, carbon labels can tell us the impact our purchases have on the planet. But our increasing consumption of sugar despite decades of warning labels, suggests people don’t always make rational retail choices—and that the road to generational change is long and slow. 

We haven’t got that kind of time to deal with our addiction to carbon. 

If labeling is going to help wean us off carbon, it will need to overcome the fearsome complexity of emissions calculations, a lack of regulation, and public confusion over greenwashing. Here’s the latest on how—or even if—labeling can be part of our climate solution. 

• • •

Labels Launch A Virtuous Cycle 

1.  A label we’re willing to pay for. Nearly three quarters of Europeans support the introduction of carbon footprint labeling on food, think it should be mandatory, and are even prepared to pay slightly more for labeled products, according to research from the University of Reading. Demand is especially high among women and those with more money and education; a small group to be sure, but one that drives many retail trends.

2.  Demand incentivizes innovation. In a recent paper in Nature Climate Change, University of Cambridge researcher Kristian Nielsen  writes: “Labeling may induce some producers to reduce emissions to score well in labeling systems and gain reputational benefits.” He points out that manufacturers reduced unhealthy trans-fats in the run-up to mandatory nutritional labeling.

3.  It works even if you don’t believe in it. A fascinating study out of Sweden last year confirmed the existence of “info decliners”—people who actively avoid looking at labels with upsetting or unwanted data, whether related to animal welfare, health choices or climate change. But carbon labeling even worked on them, reducing their emissions by over 10 percent.

• • •

A Painful Process. No Guarantees.

1.  Messy science. A calorie is a calorie whoever measures it, but calculating the carbon footprint of a product requires a detailed accounting of its manufacture, distribution, use, and ultimate disposal. Deciding which of those emissions end up on a carbon label is neither easy nor cheap. UK supermarket Tesco abandoned plans to carbon label the entirety of its 70,000 inventory after costs spiraled. 

2.  Messier politics. Carbon labeling has yet to find favor with many politicians around the world. In the absence of firm regulation, there are at least 31 competing carbon labels. Some are more credible than others, leading to the possibility of greenwashing—and almost certainly to consumer confusion and frustration.  

3.  Labeling without taxes doesn’t work. A recent survey conducted in the UK and reported in Nature Food suggests that while labeling is helpful, only combining it with a carbon tax will significantly reduce emissions. This rings true: a Danish supermarket chain experimenting with sugar labels alone found they did not significantly decrease unhealthy drink sales, whereas a policy in Mexico that combined sugar labeling with a sugar tax reduced the sales of sweetened drinks by over 6 percent.

carbon labels and carbon taxes

• • •
What To Keep An Eye On

1.  France. Last year, the French government announced it would push forward with mandatory carbon labels on a range of high-polluting goods and services. If this effort can move the needle on consumer behavior and shift manufacturers to greener products, it could stimulate labeling efforts elsewhere.

2.  Fast food, fast changes? Simple carbon labeling in restaurants has shown promising results in shifting people’s purchases. Can the chains already stepping up help push more countries past “peak meat” to sustainable low-carbon dining?

3.  The global response. While carbon labeling is most advanced in developed countries, it is the rest of the world’s growing middle classes that will have the biggest carbon impact in years to come. China is toying with carbon labeling, in the face of concerns that mandatory labeling will further disrupt small businesses and global supply chains.

 Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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