If the sight of 5g poly-unsaturated fats on the nutritional label of a product makes you bleary-eyed, the label next to it declaring “10g CO2” may not add much to your shopping experience. On the other hand, it may excite you that you’ll be able to compare retail products on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Perhaps it’s just the information you’ve been looking for.
The Environmental Audit Committee of the UK published a report on the 23rd or March, 2009 that recommends the implementation of carbon labeling on all products in the UK to send a clear signal to consumers.
“The Government should encourage carbon labelling for all products and services as a priority but ultimately as part of a universal and comprehensive environmental labelling scheme. It should legislate for this if necessary.”
Environmental Audit Committee Report
Retail giant Tesco is already trialing carbon labels on 20 of its products in the UK using labels from the independent labeling body The Carbon Trust. Their carbon label provides information about how much CO2 was emitted in the production, manufacturing, and transport and will be emitted in the use of the product. Companies have to commit to reducing their carbon footprints over a two-year period or the Carbon Trust will withdraw the label. Some of the labels feature a comparison with the carbon dioxide emissions of competitor products.
“Given the challenge we face in decarbonising the economy, the Committee believes carbon labelling may prove the single most important environmental measure in promoting behavioural change at home, at work and in business,” said Colin Challen MP, chairman of the Environmental Information Sub-Committee. “If government initiatives, such as the Act on CO2 campaign, are to help individuals cut their carbon footprint, labels dealing with ’embedded’ carbon are vital.”
Criticism of the Carbon Trust labelling project has largely focused on the way the label communicates the carbon footprint of a product. They feature a picture of a footprint and an amount of CO2 in grams. The Sustainable Development Commission, an independent watchdog on sustainable development, is concerned about whether it is understood by consumers or relevant to their interests.
“A carbon footprint in grams of CO2 provides no clear message or reassurance about the sustainability of a product. It may even confuse people into thinking that the grams of carbon are actually in the product.”
The Sustainable Development Commission
Some argue that the products and services we buy make up so little of our carbon footprint, that an effort to address it is pointless. They argue that a carbon label is too easily ignored, just like poly-unsaturated fat on a nutritional label, and any CO2 savings made by comparing carbon footprint labels is vastly overshadowed by the fact that you drove their in a gas powered car to pick them up.
A carbon label will clearly not fight climate change on its own. A clear price on carbon (carbon taxes, cap and trade schemes) is necessary, but adding carbon dioxide emissions into the daily awareness of the average citizen can still drive big changes. They key to the success of a carbon label is if consumer choice really reverberates through the supply chain and drives companies to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. Encouragingly, the Carbon Trust says that “even the pilot scheme had encouraged manufacturers significantly to reduce carbon from their production processes.”
Carbon labelling is not, and should not, be used to represent all environmental impacts and will not fight climate change on its own. Given the challenge countries are faced with in decarbonizing their economies, every effort to raise awareness about carbon dioxide emissions is important. However, it needs to be universal across products and sectors. Otherwise, it will just add to the proliferation of patchwork environmental labels that don’t employ a common methodology and do not gain consumer trust and awareness.