Carbon labeling can reduce greenhouse gases even if it doesn't change consumer behavior

December 20, 2018 by Liz Entman, Vanderbilt University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

In a new commentary piece published Dec. 18 in Nature Climate Change, Michael Vandenbergh, David Daniels Allen Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Climate Change Research Network, examines how carbon labeling can help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in a variety of ways. The article, "From Myths to Action," is coauthored by Kristian Steensen Nielsen of the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark and comments on recent research by Adrian R. Camilleri and colleagues.

One of the most important ways that individuals can reduce greenhouse gases is by reducing the proportion of meat in their diets, Vandenbergh and Nielsen write. Plant-based foods have a much smaller footprint than meat—but research shows that consumers often don't know that, or have any idea how carbon-intensive any of their food is at all.

Carbon labeling is one way that researchers have proposed to address that knowledge deficit and give consumers an easy way to make more environmentally sensitive choices if they wish. The Camilleri et al. study shows that when offered the choice between low-GHG vegetable soup and high-GHG beef soup, most consumers chose the vegetable soup.

Other studies have shown that labeling doesn't have much effect on consumer behavior. But that doesn't mean it doesn't work, Vandenbergh and Nielsen argue. Being required to disclose how carbon-intensive their products are can also incentivize food producers to reexamine their supply chains and look for efficiencies to bring those numbers down, particularly if those changes result in cost savings. There is a reputational incentive as well, as businesses may be loath for customers to see a high-GHG label on their products.

While carbon labeling will not reduce GHG emissions as much as a comprehensive carbon tax would, the authors say, it has two advantages: It is implementable by both private organizations and governments; and it could force emission reductions throughout international supply chains, promoting change across borders. "It is a mistake to focus only on ideal solutions that cannot be implemented in the near term," Vandenbergh says. "Carbon labeling can't solve the climate problem, but it can be implemented quickly and can buy time for more comprehensive options."

Explore further: Do you know the carbon footprint of your food choices?

More information: Michael P. Vandenbergh et al. From myths to action, Nature Climate Change (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41558-018-0357-9

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5 comments

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Shootist
1 / 5 (5) Dec 20, 2018
carbon labeling has one purpose. to separate the western middle class from their wealth to fund the retirement, healthcare and welfare state. Period.

carbon labeling: Too many Marxists with their hands out.
pntaylor
5 / 5 (2) Dec 20, 2018
I, previously, saw this kind of info as bolstered by vegan propaganda.
While I still think there is a bit, of that, involved, there is no mistaking (here in the US) beef is way too much of our diet. People are seldom served a, truly, balanced meal, even at home.
It is, very, apparent in our restaurants, where you get served a 12oz steak, 3oz of vegetables
and 4oz of potatoes. That is really out of whack.
Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy meat but with a 12oz steak (which sound great right now) I want 4 times that much vegetables.
mabrams
1 / 5 (6) Dec 20, 2018
we science folks (look white lab coats) are fighting that bad bad CO2 we are exhaling, so give us money and all your steaks.
fireofenergy1
5 / 5 (1) Dec 23, 2018
No carbon taxes (yet) but carbon label everything, and meat, if done right, would be carbon negative! With soooo many ill informed environmentalists, it's no wonder there's so much conspiracy thinking and hatred towards global warming solutions.
Non skeptics MUST understand why skeptics deny and also fight off the stupidity that surrounds AGW, such as "we don't need more energy, even if from clean sources" and the "meat is bad" nonsense.
Da Schneib
4.5 / 5 (2) Dec 24, 2018
This is ridiculous. If we want to reduce carbon we need to consider how we generate electricity and what we choose for transportation; messing with what we eat is at best 5% of the problem. And it's counterproductive; now everyone sees reducing carbon production as affecting their diet, and that's stupid in public relations terms. These people should shut up and contribute to reducing carbon from electricity generation and transportation if they want to make a real difference. Otherwise this is just vegan propaganda.

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