If you ask the average person, they will likely tell you that they want to do the right thing when it comes to the environment. The problem is that the average person has little information to guide them to a wise choice. Just as we have with the health concerns of smoking, we need to provide the facts to consumers and help them make the right choices in day-to-day life. One simple change that can be made is the labeling of the things we buy with their carbon footprint.
Carbon Labeling Will Lead to Informed Choices
A carbon label would list the lifetime emissions for the product from production to disposal. Here is an example for the laptop I am using to write this post:
Source: Google’s environmental report for the Pixelbook. Google makes this available for its operations and most current products.
With labeling at the point of sale, we can see how our purchases impact the planet and thus make an informed choice.
Joseph Poore has proposed a label that sets out the impact of food graphically. This label would be on the shelf with the price and on the product with the nutritional information.
Example of food labels showing environmental impacts. Illustration: Joseph Poore
These labels are easy to read. Green and small is good, red and big is bad. The two examples here make it very clear which product has the smaller footprint. Food labeling is an idea that is likely to take off. Denmark is already considering this approach.
Labeling for other products could follow this model. Or it be a more limited and directed total lifetime emission number.
Gas pumps would be labeled with the well-to-tailpipe emissions for a litre of fuel. The receipt for gas would include the total emissions for that transaction. This labeling would allow different brands of fuels to be compared, favouring the companies with lower overall emissions and lower carbon fuels.
Natural gas bills would detail our emissions. Fracked gas might have higher emissions, while gas with hydrogen from renewable power would be lower.
Our electricity bill would also include the GHG impact of our consumption. Including a graph of GHG emissions over the month would help consumers to shift their consumption to better times of the day or week. Together with some information on real-time emissions, consumers would have the tools to make wiser environmental decisions. I know, I worry less about running the dryer on windy weekend days.
When you book a flight or cruise, you would be presented with the GHG impact of that choice before you pay. I still travel by air too much and despite knowing an easy way to work this out –it’s about the same as driving the same distance in a car — I never do the math before I enter my credit card.
Labeling where you Live and what you Drive
New homes would include information on the emissions to build them and the annual emissions expected for running them. This would put emissions and heating/cooling costs into the information given to prospective buyers.
The same would be true for new cars. The GHG emissions for producing and shipping the car to the customer would add new information for the buyer. Cars produced in countries with cleaner grids have much lower GHG impact, especially if they are electric. Measured on the carbon cost of production, the auto companies would have a motivation to buy green energy to make their cars more competitive. Some auto companies are actively reducing their footprint and this should be rewarded.
The Cost of Labeling
Carbon labeling will bring some additional costs. Labeling has to be accountable, auditable and accurate. A company producing a product will have to total the GHG inputs from its suppliers and add the additional GHG emitted during production and transportation to the end customer to generate the label. This process has parallels with financial accounting and the processes are essentially similar. Producing a label for a product for the first time will require effort, but the maintenance of the label as changes are made that (hopefully) reduce the GHG emissions can be tracked just as the cost for producing the product are. GHG tracking would be a second dimension to accounting systems.
Accuracy and sensitivity are critical to giving choice to consumers. Any change to the way an item is produced and delivered that impacts the overall GHG cost of the purchase should be reflected in the labeling. Companies like Amazon can reduce the GHG for a product if it is transported using electric delivery trucks from a sustainably heated warehouse vs the current diesel and natural gas world.
Labeling will create new jobs, in GHG accounting and carbon reduction, adding to the economy. These costs will be offset by reductions in energy bills.
Labeling Provides a Layer of Education
When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we talk a lot about “polluter pays”, and this is useful because it appears to push the need for action to “polluters” and not you and me. But the fact is, that although we are polluters, it’s just not something we consider in our day to day lives. If we know that we are responsible for our emissions, the idea that we perhaps should pay more for the privilege will be far more palatable. No one likes to pay more but it becomes easier for politicians to justify if the voters know why and can see why this is being done.