Prepare for Shock Carbon Therapy Sticker

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Knowing the fat and salt content of a bag of potato chips allows for healthier food choices, but does not guarantee it. The same goes for carbon labelling. At a glance, carbon labels can tell us the impact of our purchases on the planet. But our rising sugar consumption despite decades of warning labels suggests people aren’t always making rational choices in retail, and the road to generational change is long and slow.

We don’t have that kind of time to deal with our carbon addiction.

If labeling is to help us get rid of carbon, it will have to overcome the daunting complexity of emissions calculations, the lack of regulation and public confusion about greenwashing. Here’s the latest on how, or even if, labeling can be part of our climate solution.

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Labels launch a virtuous circle

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

2. Demand drives innovation. In a recent article by Natural climate change, Kristian Nielsen, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, writes: “Labelling can incentivize some producers to reduce their emissions to perform well in labeling schemes and gain reputational benefits.” He points out that manufacturers have reduced unhealthy trans fats in the run-up to mandatory nutrition labeling.

3. It works even if you don’t believe it. A fascinating study of Sweden last year confirmed the existence of “information decliners” – people who actively avoid looking at labels containing disturbing or undesirable data, whether related to animal welfare, health choices or climate change. But carbon labeling even worked on them, reducing their emissions by more than 10%.

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A painful process. No warranty.

1. Messy science. A calorie is a calorie no matter who measures it, but calculating a product’s carbon footprint requires detailed accounting of its manufacture, distribution, use and eventual disposal. Deciding which of these emissions end up on a carbon label is neither easy nor cheap. UK supermarket Tesco has scrapped plans to carbon label all of its 70,000 stocks after soaring costs.

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

3. Tax free labeling does not work. A recent survey conducted in the UK and reported in Nature Food suggests that while labeling is useful, only its combination with a carbon tax will significantly reduce emissions. It rings true: a Danish supermarket chain that was experimenting with sugar labels on its own discovered that they did not decrease significantly sales of unhealthy drinks, while a Mexican policy linking sugar labeling to a sugar tax reduced sales of sugary drinks by more than 6%.


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What to keep an eye on

1.France. Last year, the French government announced that it would go ahead with mandatory carbon labels on a range of highly polluting goods and services. If this effort can shift consumer behavior and steer manufacturers toward greener products, it could spur labeling efforts elsewhere.

2. Quick restore, quick changes? Simple carbon labeling in restaurants has showed promising results by moving people’s purchases. Is the the chains are already intensifying help push more countries beyond”meat spike” to sustainable, low-carbon catering?

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 greatest carbon impact in the years to come. China plays with carbon labeling, in the in the face of concerns that mandatory labeling will further disrupt small businesses and global supply chains.

Image: © Anthropocene Magazine

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