Critics warn against rush to start carbon labelling

Last year’s launch of a carbon label by three product manufacturers was premature, the Sustainable Development Commission has told a parliamentary committee inquiry. Tesco, meanwhile, is forging ahead with the development of a new kind of carbon label.

Carbon labelling - which shows how much CO2 products emit in their life cycle - is attractive to manufacturers and retailers who want to responding to consumers’ concerns about climate change. Last year three firms - Boots, Walkers and Innocent - began selling a limited range of products bearing a carbon label devised by the Carbon Trust (ENDS Report 387, p 32-35 ).

But critics say measuring a product’s embedded carbon is complicated and that the biggest environmental impact of some products is not their life cycle CO2 emissions. In addition, the spread of carbon labelling could also clash with energy labels, which tell consumers which products are the most energy efficient.

Giving evidence in November to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry on environmental labelling, Marks and Spencer’s head of corporate social responsibility, Mike Barry, said companies would do more to combat climate change by cutting their own operations’ emissions rather than waiting years for a universal carbon label and hoping it will turn people into green consumers (ENDS Report 395, pp 57-58 ).

In December Mr Barry was followed by sustainable development commissioner Alan Knight, who also served on the government’s Advisory Committee for Consumer Products and the Environment. Mr Knight said even though carbon-labelled products are in the shops, the methodology for calculating a product’s emissions was "still not thought through".

He warned that a leading peat producer is about to launch a carbon label that only includes emissions related to the transport of peat from bogs to garden centres and fails to include the CO2 emitted when peat degrades during its use - emissions that are four times higher than those during distribution.

Instead of labelling all of their products, retailers should use the data they acquire on the carbon footprints of their products to "edit out unsustainable choices" and stop selling those with the biggest footprints.

Tesco, which announced 12 months ago its long-term plans to carbon label all of its products, dislikes the idea of choice editing. Instead it wants to "empower" its customers to make choices between products on the basis of their carbon footprints.

In addition to its work with the Carbon Trust looking at the carbon footprints of some 30 products, Tesco is separately "testing the degree to which customers can understand the carbon currency", community and government affairs director David North told the committee. It is also trying to assess how a label could show whether a product has a relatively high or low footprint.

According to its written evidence, Tesco hopes to develop a "universally accepted" scheme that will "allow customers to compare the carbon footprints of products as easily as they compare price."

Tesco’s announcement on carbon labelling last year came only a few months after then environment secretary David Miliband said he was interested in the idea of personal carbon allowances. The government is funding research to produce proposals for such a system with within five years (ENDS Report 383, p 13 ).

The Energy Saving Trust, which runs its own "energy saving recommended" labelling scheme for energy-efficient products, also said carbon labelling was premature. Head of policy research Brian Samuel said consumers do not understand the concept of embodied carbon and are "much more interested" in energy consumption and how energy-efficient products can save money. He agreed that consumers need to be educated about embodied carbon but said "we are not there yet".

His colleague Matthew Wright, director of customer insight, said that "at some point, without a shadow of doubt, the lifetime use of carbon will be the issue" and "the question is how do we get there?" One option is to move from labelling energy in use to embodied energy and then to embodied carbon; the other is to jump from energy in use to carbon emissions caused by that energy use, and then to embodied carbon.

Another problem with carbon labelling, said Mr Knight, is that areas such as chemicals and water use are not taken into account. These could be the biggest environmental issues for some goods.

Unlike other environmental labels, such as the Forest Stewardship Scheme’s logo for sustainable timber or the EU energy label, the Carbon Trust’s label, which gives a figure for a product’s carbon footprint in grams of CO2 , does not tell the consumer whether the product is "good" or "bad". At best, he said, it will help the few consumers that already make environmental choices when the priority needs to be influencing the large majority who do not shop on that basis (see p 6 ).

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