In The Economist's latest article series "What if", the authors send their readers into a utopian future where the issue of climate change lies at the core of society. Companies are disclosing the impact they have on the climate through carbon accounting, influencers are bragging about their climate savvy lifestyles and consumers are buying carbon offsets to compensate for climate-heavy actions. In the restaurant industry, giants like Pret A Manger are labeling all their foods with… that's right, the climate impact of each dish!
Some parts of this vision of the future might be outlandish. Are we actually likely to see Kylie Jenner share her weekly carbon footprint stats on IG, or will Cristiano Ronaldo snap selfies with backpackers from his train ride to the Italian Riviera instead of flying private to his Yacht. Given the egg that has received more likes than Kylie Jenner with 18.1 million, the future of the social media is difficult to predict?
But what exactly are climate labels?
The idea behind climate labels is that labels should not just tell us what a product contains, but what it costs the planet to make. In the food industry climate labels are based on calculations of the emissions of greenhouse gases presented as kg carbon dioxide equivalents (kg CO2e). The calculations in turn are based on values assigned to each stage of the production of the food through life cycle assessments (LCAs).
Does that stand a chance in helping us save the planet?
Well, at first it might not. It is true that climate labels are in many cases still based on generic values. Each supply chain might differ, causing discrepancies between ingredients produced in different ways. Despite the fact that many food producers have come a long way in tracking their supply chain, and researchers around the world are pulling a heavy load ensuring that CO2e values include these differences, climate labels still hold room for improvements. Additionally, the critics of climate labelling are arguing that a label next to a menu or on a product will have little effect on people's actual consumption behaviour.
So why does The Economist highlight climate labels as a standard business processes in a climate savvy future
As described in the article, the popularity of climate labels will improve the quality of the calculations, leaving less and less room for discrepancies in the carbon disclosures on the labels. Furthermore, there are conflicting ideas about how much a CO2e label actually can change consumption behaviour. Examples from legislation enforcing companies to adopt labels which rate the energy efficiency of white goods and lightbulbs in the US has saved some three billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, showing the efficiency of such a scheme. The critics of course argue that labels ultimately have a small impact on people's desires.
What the debate is lacking is the perspective of the potential of these labels. Labels allow us to use the actual CO2e value as an influencing factor to each consumption decision. They allow consumers to filter for climate smart restaurants and dishes in food-delivery apps, it allows school canteens to showcase climate smart foods in a more attractive way, and company canteens to introduce climate policies in their canteens, based on actual values. By calculating the footprint it becomes a measurable metric, and if businesses really are to live up to the hype of data analytics and “doing good”, well here is your chance! Start disclosing, set targets and change your business so that you actually reach those targets. Calculations even allow for carbon footprint pricing, which, if done in a calculated manner, has the potential to decrease global emissions significantly as shown in studies from Oxford University.