EU wants carbon labels to do what they say on the tin

  

SPECIAL REPORT / A European Commission review of carbon dioxide labelling methodologies for commercial products, due later this year, is likely to propose a grading system similar to the EU energy consumption labels for products, goods and services, EurActiv has learned.

“This approach could simplify the way in which the information is delivered, without requiring a simplistic approach,” said Joe Hennon, spokesman for Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik.

“The new Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) standard will only focus on the three most relevant categories and will probably use a grading system,” he told EurActiv.  

This would be “similar to the one used by the energy label, to which the consumers are familiar and have proven to like, based on agreed benchmarks,” Hennon added.

The EU’s energy labelling scheme ensures that most major appliances, light bulb packaging and cars have a label attached, grading their efficiency performance on a scale running from A to G.

A recent EU report found that these labels were “quite familiar to consumers” and easy to understand.

However the PEF initiative as a whole aims to find a methodology to measure environmental impacts across 14 categories, some of which are not climate change-related.

As well as labelling, this methodology could also be communicated via environmental information on shelves, other point-of-sale media, smartphone codes, internet pages and instruction manuals.

The EU has not take any final decision on how to proceed.

Nonetheless, Darran Messem, managing director of certification at the UK Carbon Trust, which measures and provides carbon footprints for companies, was upbeat about the propect of an expansion of the scheme’s methodology.

“Grading systems, such as those used in the EU energy label and elsewhere are well-established and recognised by consumers,” he told EurActiv.

It was important for certification and labelling schemes “to strike the right balance between providing information while ensuring clear and simple messages to consumers,” he said.

Life-cycle assessment

Carbon labelling is a means of providing a complete and independent ‘life cycle assessment’ (LCA) – or carbon footprint – of all the CO2 that has been emitted during the manufacture, use and disposal of a product.

Ideally, it should allow consumers to rest assured that the carbon-labelled product they have bought will do what it says on the tin.

But consumer and environmental groups have criticised current carbon labelling practices for being misleading, confusing, and open to manipulation by corporate interests. 

“An LCA is like a black box,” Jürgen Resch of the German environmental organisation Deutsche Umwelthilfe, said in October 2010. “If you enter false and invalid data and misleading assumptions into the calculations, you end up with the wrong results.”

“This is what happened with the LCA’s recently published by the plastics and beverage can industry,” he added, referring to assessments the industry had carried out into its PET one-way bottles and cans. 

“Built-in flexibility”

Hennon accepted that because current carbon labelling was based on standards which had a “built-in flexibility” – in the best case scenario – and that they had consequently “often been used by practitioners to steer the results of the analysis in the direction desired”.

But he said that the EU’s review of methodologies was intended to “minimise such flexibility, providing a clearer and more structured framework to carry out the studies, leading to much more comparable results and also reducing uncertainties and imprecisions.”

One recent report by one European consumer watchdog found that the level of complexity in carbon labelling methodology would befuddle even the experts tasked with devising it.

That paper, by the group ANEC, called for the EU’s more straightforward colour or letter-coded energy labelling system to be developed further.

Hennon said the new methodology would be moving in exactly this direction, despite green criticisms that this as an impossible task.

“There is a balance to be struck,” he said, “as too much or too confusing information does not help but may, on the contrary, reduce the willingness of consumers to make better informed choices.”

EU study

In hindsight, a recent EU study of its option for communicating environmental product information in the 2008 review of the Sustainable Consumption and Production Industrial Policy Action may be seen to have foreshadowed many of the EU’s proposals.

Among other things, it found that: 

  • Too many environmental indicators confuse consumers and so no more than three indicators should be communicated.
  • The information should come from a trusted, and ideally third-party source, and not the manufacturer.
  • General terms for indicators and simpler rating systems and units of measurement are better than technical descriptions.
  • Information should be provided at the point of purchase for maximum impact on behaviour.
  • Lettered assessments are easier for consumers to understand, although coloured ones are difficult for manufacturers to integrate into their packaging designs.

“The Carbon Trust supports the principle of comparability across products because this enables consumers to make informed choices.” Messem said.

Timeline: 
  • 2012: EU due to complete review of its methodology for environmental labelling of commercial products, goods and services.
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