Managing the carbon footprint of food is too hard and best left to the market

There was a long piece in the Observer yesterday criticising people who buy food based on the distance it has travelled. It says that “working out carbon footprints is horribly complicated” and cites all the examples of local food being more carbon intensive than food produced far away.

At one point in the article, a representative of the Carbon Trust gets in a tizz about dried vs. cooked chickpeas, because while the dried chickpeas have a lower carbon footprint on the shelf, you have to cook them at home, producing more emissions.

Product based carbon footprints will hopefully be redundant in the future. The cost of emissions will be levied at the direct source (where they are relatively easy to measure) and passed through the supply chain. Consumers will be driven by price signals rather than labels. The dried chickpeas will have a lower carbon cost in their price tag, but consumers will realise that cooking them increases their energy bills.

In fact, consumers already endure the carbon costs of industries in the EU ETS that are involved in the cheakpeas’ production, including energy generators. A larger proportion of those costs are applied to the cooked chickpeas before they arrive at the supermarket. If a footprint label for chickpeas reflects the energy costs associated with cooking (as the Carbon Trust suggests), the consumer will take these emissions into account twice in their decision. Got it…?

Product level footprints are not entirely useless. They are the best way to direct ethical shoppers away from carrier bags and food miles and toward sensible actions like cutting back on dairy and meat, when much of the grocery supply chain is not covered by climate regulation. But they are no substitute for pricing and controlling emissions at source.

(We haven’t forgotten, by the way, that Tesco has promised to label each of its 50,000+ product lines with their carbon footprints.)

One Response to “Managing the carbon footprint of food is too hard and best left to the market”

  1. Maureen Ridley Says:

    It’s quite laughbale (rather than laudable) that Tesco has made statements above moving towards carbon-labelling on its products. When I approached them asking for a list of own-brand products which contained palm oil, they couldn’t answer and asked ME to supply list of specific products as they couldn’t identify what ingredients were used from their database. How they apply carbon-labelling if they don’t know what they’re putting in their food?!

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