A tool as simple and far-reaching as carbon labelling, listing a product’s lifetime Climate footprint from production to disposal, would go a long way in helping consumers who want to take personal action on climate change to do so, consultant and Climate Reality leader Matthew Eglin argues in a post this month for Below 2°C.
“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,” Eglin writes. “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.”
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As an example, Eglin cites the estimated lifetime carbon footprint for Google’s 64-gigabyte Pixel 2 smart phone, which the IT behemoth calculates at 50 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents for manufacture, 12.2 kilograms for use, 4.1 kilograms for transportation, and 0.1 kilograms for recycling. “With labeling at the point of sale, we can see how our purchases impact the planet and thus make an informed choice.”
Denmark is already considering labelling food for its climate impact, and a design put forward by University of Oxford agriculture and environment researcher Joseph Poore captures impacts like pesticide toxicity and biodiversity impact in graphical form. The label “would be on the shelf with the price and on the product with the nutritional information,” Eglin explains. And the labels “are easy to read. Green and small is good, red and big is bad.”
Extending the concept, he sees labelling gas pumps with well-to-tailpipe emissions for a litre of fuel and including the information on transaction receipts, and developing similar markings for vehicles and homes. The gas pump labels “would allow different brands of fuels to be compared, favouring the companies with lower overall emissions and lower-carbon fuels.” The same would apply to natural gas bills, to capture the emissions difference between fracked gas and hydrogen produced with renewable electricity.
For the system to work, “labelling has to be accountable, auditable, and accurate,” and “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,” Eglin notes. While labelling would bring additional costs, he says it would also create new jobs in greenhouse gas accounting and carbon reduction activities, and the cost could be offset by reduced energy bills.
“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,” Eglin concludes. “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.”
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