Climate change, a problem that we had previously believed would only affect future generations, is already here. Glaciers are melting, and it is estimated that the Arctic will be ice-free by 2030, spelling the end for the polar bear. Experts believe that to avoid reaching the crucial tipping point we need to prevent the Earth warming more than two degrees, and such a move will require major reductions in carbon emissions. Although governments have a responsibility for taking the necessary steps, individuals have an important part to play too.
A recent survey called Consuming Australia was carried out by a team at the University of Sydney in collaboration with the Australian Conservation Foundation. This confirms that the household carbon footprint from spending on products and services outweighs the combined carbon from both electricity use and driving. On average, every dollar is associated with 720 grams of greenhouse emissions, and this correlation between carbon footprint and affluence caused wealthy inner city suburbs to top the emissions league table.
At present, we can only make educated guesses about the carbon impact of what we buy, but things may be changing soon following the arrival of carbon labelling.
A Carbon Trust initiative
The Carbon Trust is a private company established by the UK Government to facilitate the transition towards a low-carbon future. Using opinion polling, it has discovered that 66% of British consumers would like to know the carbon footprint of the products they buy.
Over the last year, the Carbon Trust has been developing a unique voluntary carbon label that British companies can choose to display on their product packaging, showing grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) generated through the full lifecycle. This scheme is currently in an experimental phase which is expected to continue until later this year. Each participating company has opened up its supply chain to analysis by the Carbon Trust.
Walkers Snacks, a UK subsidiary of the US giant PepsiCo, was the first to take the challenge, for its Cheese and Onion Crisps (35g), with the label indicating a 75g carbon footprint. This can be broken down into five areas, namely growing the ingredients (44%), processing (30%), packaging manufacture (15%), transportation (9%), and packaging disposal (2%.) Apparently, the product’s largest single carbon component is the use of chemical fertiliser associated with growing the potatoes.
Other participants include the national chemist chain Boots, whose Botanics range of shampoos shows 161g worth of carbon, and smoothie manufacturer Innocent, whose 250ml Mango and Passionfruit variety displays a figure of 294g. Last September, Coca-Cola, Cadbury Schweppes, Müller Dairy, the Scottish and Newcastle brewery and the Cooperative Group supermarket chain each volunteered to use the Carbon Trust measuring system for one product, although no commitment was made to utilise the label.
For the corporate sector, the appeal of this carbon label, which could potentially carry negative associations, is the conspicuous downward-pointing carbon reduction arrow design. After two years, the label can only be renewed if the manufacturer shows that steps have been taken to reduce the labelled product’s carbon footprint. Walkers has recently requested farmers to produce potatoes with less moisture, as this reduces the energy requirements while they are in storage.
If such a system becomes widespread, consumers will be able to compare brands on a carbon basis, further motivating manufacturers to gain a competitive edge through efficiency improvements. Some shoppers may consciously steer towards the low-carbon end of the retail market. However, at this stage there is no consensus on whether such considerations will be taken into account by a small number of aware shoppers, the 66% identified by the Carbon Trust, or somewhere in between.
One sticky area that is causing much head-scratching is the choice of methodology. A concept that appears straightforward at a distance becomes a mass of complex variables when seen up close. Products are often reformulated, supply chains are reorganised, and raw material supplies may be obtained from a range of different countries, each with different growing methods. To make the system workable, is it acceptable to introduce some averages? This is one of the questions that Britain’s government agencies are pondering as they work towards the first national carbon labelling standard.
Other carbon labelling moves
Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, has recently indicated a commitment to provide its customers with carbon information. In a pilot project, it will label 30 products in its own-brand range, including tomatoes and light bulbs. For electrical items, carbon accounting would also factor in the emissions generated by their expected use. Ambitious long-range plans have been announced to label all products sold in Tesco stores, and as there are tens of thousands of these, this move is expected to take years.
In the US, footwear maker Timberland started to label its range last September as part of a raft of green initiatives. Labels indicate that a leather hiking boot has a carbon footprint of about 30kg, the largest component caused by raising the cow from which the leather was sourced. In comparison, a grey fabric sneaker has a surprisingly high 40kg.
Also in the States, the giant Wal-Mart chain has started to favour suppliers that are aggressively curbing greenhouse emissions. Meanwhile, the computer company Dell is asking its suppliers to report their emissions, and to take steps to reduce them.
The food miles dilemma
As a significant element of a food product’s total carbon footprint, ‘food miles’ is a term for the distance that an item of food travels before arriving on a plate.
Fresh produce is more likely to be air-freighted, while less perishable foods travel by sea. Research by the Institute for Sustainable Futures shows that air freight is responsible for hundreds of times more carbon emissions than sea transport. Furthermore, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, aircraft emissions create approximately 2.7 times the greenhouse effect of those released at ground level.
This has become a far more prominent issue in Europe where a large proportion of food is imported, than in Australia with its wide range of climatic zones. Woolworths, for example, states that 97% of its fresh produce is grown domestically. As with carbon labels, the UK is again leading the way, with British supermarkets debating whether to add ‘food miles’ stickers to their ranges. Tesco has signalled an intention to add an aeroplane symbol to all air-freighted items, which it hopes to shrink from around 2-3% of the total range down to 1%.
The prospect of worldwide adoption
There is a growing body of opinion that in future international climate negotiations, responsibility for the emissions of a major manufacturing country such as China should be shared by the consumers of Chinese products. This would have the interesting effect of shifting the burden of responsibility from governments onto individuals, while better highlighting the incompatibility of carbon curbs with a growth-based consumer economy.
Although in its infancy, carbon labelling has the aura of an idea that is set to sweep across the world as we get serious about tackling climate change. While there has so far been minimal interest in Australia, it is probably only a matter of time before similar labelling arrives here too, providing consumers with a powerful tool to help them reduce their carbon footprint.
Carbon Trust, www.carbontrust.co.uk
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