Monday, August 1, 2011

Climate labelling is a good cure for climate anxiety - but not for climate change.

 As a response to the huge attention to the devastating effects of climate change some five years ago, many organic standard setters rushed into making proposals for how to address this in standards. Those efforts range from simplistic and symbolic issues like a ban on air freight to complex scientific approaches based on life cycle assessment. We have discussed many times before (in this paper) how simplistic and symbolic actions such as an air-freight ban can have unfair and undesirable effects, e.g. on smallholders in developing countries, or how in general, the desire to regulate all and everybody sometimes is an example of how the best can be the enemy of the good.

Product labelling is a delicate tool. Thirty years of organic labelling and eco labelling have given us some experiences of what works and what doesn't work. Simple things like "chlorine free paper" and "grown without chemical fertilisers" work very well. More complex criteria are more difficult. Their credibility is mostly more depending on who is behind the label than the actual content of the label. For instance, most consumers of fair trade products probably have little knowledge of what those standards really mean, and even less of how they are certified.

Climate labelling tries to boil down very complex matters into one simple message. And also matters for which science are still struggling to give simple answers. Methane emissions from ruminants is one such issue where the scientific basis is very thin; there are not many measurements of methane emissions in field conditions. Similarly nitrous oxide emissions caused by farm methods and methane emissions from cultivation of rice are not researched sufficiently to allow for very clear answers to our questions. The choice will be between very simplistic, and therefore not very relevant and potentially counter-productive, standards and a scientific approach which is impossible to communicate in the market place, very expensive to implement and not predictable in how it will work, to the detriment of the producer, who might fail even if she or he did the right thing.

It has a bigger effect on the climate how your overall consumption pattern is than if you chose a climate labelled steak over a non-climate labelled steak. And even the perfect "climate neutral product" will have a bad climate effect if you drive half an hour by car in order to get it. There are also some conflicting demands emerging from the emphasis on climate effects. Supposedly slowly growing livestock emits more methane - per kg meat - than livestock the grows rapidly. But rapid growth is mainly accomplished by the use of concentrates, which is against the nature of ruminants and therefore not as natural or healthy.

To offer "climate labelling" as the response to people with climate anxiety may also make people believe that they are solving the problem with small changes in their consumption pattern, and divert them from taking other necessary actions, such as political demands to their governments. The same holds for "climate offsetting" by which a certain product is rendered "carbon neutral" by means of paying for carbon offsetting somewhere else. It results in the interesting effect that your bicycle trip is worse for the climate than taking a round the world trip by airplane. It is like your emissions never happened. But of course they have. There are not enough offset opportunities to counteract all greenhouse gas release. All in all climate change is too serious a threat to be mainly left for consumer choice to deal with. Organic standard-setters should not participate in making veils for covering up this inconvenient truth.

leader The Organic Standard issue 124 (forthcoming)

You can read more about climate anxiety at:

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