In early 2007 – 12 years ago – the then-CEO of Tesco pledged to put labels on the company’s 70,000+ products showing the carbon emissions associated with them. As someone who worked with carbon accounting under a government renewable scheme (the RHI) I can understand how difficult a process this can be. There are numerous processes that can contribute to emissions, and a huge amount of variables you have to account for.

Copy of Copy of Our Project (1)By 2012, out of the 70,000+ products on offer, the supermarket chain had only managed … slightly over 1000. At a rate of 125 products a year Rebecca Smithers (consumer affairs correspondent at The Guardian) had earlier theorised that it would take ‘centuries’ to catalogue all that Tesco sells.

Tesco then shortly scrapped their commitment to label all their products with carbon accounting. It was just too much work, they claimed, wasn’t popular with consumers, and had not been proactively taken up by their competitors or suppliers.

Yet all of this points to an important question – who is carbon accounting for? To me this is partly an ideological issue. There are those who think that the problem of climate change can be solved with a markets approach – if we empower consumers with the knowledge that they need and provide them with sensible choices then they can change their habits and reduce the carbon impact of their consumption. At the same time some people believe that this isn’t a problem individuals can solve by themselves – the information is too complex, and the choices are already made in part by the supermarket’s supply chains, government subsidy for specific farming techniques, and existing consumer regulations.

Tesco still has a list of the carbon emissions involved in certain products. As an individual I did read through it and try to make my own choices. I was surprised at the difference between aerosol and roll-on deodorant, and as someone with low-level asthma this is an easy switch to make. I was also surprised at the small carbon difference between bar and liquid soap, and the effort in switching I was planning to make could be used elsewhere. On the other hand, the high carbon emissions around lamb and beef (and the significantly lower rates for vegan sources of protein) aren’t surprising. I didn’t really know what I was suspecting with organic foods but it was marginally higher presumably because of the better growing rates fertiliser provides. 

There are some issues of comparability, for example most food is shown as CO2 equivalent per 100g, whilst lager is shown per litre, soft drinks per 250ml, and diluted soft drinks per bottle (ranging from .75L to 3L). Per use comparisons also don’t inform you well enough given that some of these items aren’t basic necessities.

Anyway, this has just been me sharing something I learnt about recently. If you’re interested in learning more, I found this thesis on the practical impacts of carbon counting quite insightful.

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