Labelling consumer products with their carbon footprint is not the best approach to combating global warming as the labels at their worst increase negative environmental impacts and mislead consumers, according to European consumer organisation ANEC.
As global warming has entered the consciousness of the general public, carbon footprinting (PCF) of products from food to household appliances is springing up at a fast pace, such as the British Carbon Reduction Label or the German Stop Climate Change Label.
But a new study released by ANEC last week (8 July) warned that the focus on CO2 may in fact distract attention from other environmental concerns, leading to increased water usage, for instance.
Simply screening for global warming potential does not give a comprehensive picture of a product's sustainability and should thus be complemented with life-cycle and eco-efficiency assessments, it argued.
The idea behind carbon labels is to provide consumers with information about the sum of greenhouse gases which are produced during a product's full life-cycle.
But as the standardisation of product carbon footprinting is still in progress, the information from different companies is currently difficult to compare, acccording to ANEC. Consumers may believe that the labels are independently verified, while in reality they are nothing more than industry self-assessments, it said.
To further confuse consumers, most labels use single numbers to indicate their climate impact, rendering them incomprehensible, the organisation claimed.
The study argued that numbers should be accompanied by a ratings scheme allowing consumers to decipher whether the value indicates high or low CO2 content. It suggested solutions such as the EU energy label's well-known A-G scale.
In fact, energy-efficiency indicators can be more suited to addressing climate change issues as efficiency can be measured reliably and regulated by legislation, the study stressed. This would be the case for cars or household appliances, for instance, as CO2 emissions are directly related to energy and fuel consumption.
When it comes to food, however, carbon footprinting could serve as the basis for developing general climate-conscious recommendations for consumers, such as "eat regional and seasonal food" or "eat less meat," the report suggested.
"Tools other than PCF may indeed be cheaper and more reliable in addressing the inclusion of climate protection in consumer information," said ANEC Secretary-General Stephen Russell.
But Euan Murray, head of footprinting at the Carbon Trust, argued that most consumers in the UK want to know which brands are reducing the carbon footprint of their products.
"The Carbon Reduction Label provides a simple and powerful way to communicate this," he said.
As the world switches to a low-carbon economy, it is vital that manufacturers and consumers worldwide understand the carbon emissions from everyday goods and services, Murray said.
"Of course the methodologies will evolve over years to come, but the concept of carbon labelling is sound, important and should be welcomed," he stressed.