Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / April 21, 2023

Could a European climate label help us shop sustainably?

What if there were a European climate label to help consumers make better choices – those that cause the least amount of global warming?

Copyright: © European Union 2023 - Source: EP

Written by Nera Kuljanic with Clemens Weichert.

The interested shopper can find a multitude of product labels and claims on their food, clothes and household items. They provide the buyer with information on a range of topics, such as animal welfare, CO2 emissions, organic, and fair trade aspects, and more. But this variety can be daunting and confusing. What if there were a European climate label to help consumers make better choices – those that cause the least amount of global warming?

This was the premise of a workshop organised by the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) on 20 March 2023. Initiated by STOA Panel member Pernille Weiss (EPP, Denmark), the workshop’s aim was to discuss the potential and challenges of introducing an EU climate labelling framework. Two core themes emerged from the speakers’ contributions: the advantages of having a harmonised system of climate labelling for products on the EU market, and the crucial role of data in the process of designing such a system.

On the potential advantages of such a framework, Bo Weidema from the Danish Centre for Environmental Assessment started by pointing out some of the issues with the interpretation of the current labelling standards (notably at the ISO level), such as giving irrelevant, non-comparable, and non-transparent results. On the other hand, he noted the EU Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) method includes some unnecessary, complicated or unclear requirements. It therefore fails in several borderline cases, such as a producer declaring that a certain by-product has no climate impact whatsoever. According to Mr Weidema, a clear and simple PEF standard is possible by improving the methodology, rethinking the role of product categories, removing unnecessary and complicated requirements, and adding rules on dealing with uncertainty in the data. In this way, the standard could become more comprehensive, easier to apply for producers, and easier to understand for consumers.

Moving to the practical implementation of a single climate labelling framework, Emilia Moreno Ruiz, chief technical officer at ecoinvent Association, a Swiss non-profit organisation that manages a life cycle inventory database supporting environmental assessments of products and processes worldwide, explained what the supporting data infrastructure should look like. Ms Moreno Ruiz highlighted three key points that make databases fit-for-purpose. These were: (1) the enormous amount of data needed to evaluate the products has to be centrally managed according to a transparent and uniformly enforced methodology; (2) the databases have to be properly maintained and regularly updated; and (3) a modular design makes the data accessible, interoperable and reusable, for example to easily connect to other databases.

Moving from the technical ‘back end’ to the consumer-facing ‘front end’, John Thøgersen of Aarhus University, Denmark shared the latest insights from his field of economic psychology. To help consumers make better choices, he explained, labelling has to be actively used by consumers who regard it as trustworthy, must relate to a topic they care about, and should be easily understandable. In this respect, research shows that some designs are more effective than others. For example, simply declaring the amount of CO2 emitted to produce a given product is less effective than relative labelling, such as the traffic light system. Some of the issues highlighted by Mr Thøgersen are related to product categories: deciding on a reference product, establishing categories that are meaningful to the average consumer (since comparisons between very different products – such as carrots and beef – are unlikely to provide new, useful information for consumers), and labelling a large share of products in a category. Finally, Blanca Morales addressed potential advantages from the civil society perspective, speaking on behalf of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and the consumer organisation BEUC, where she serves as the EU Ecolabel coordinator. She pointed out that there are no carbon neutral products – despite the carbon offsetting efforts undertaken by some companies. Moreover, she explained, the information a label provides to consumers and the background data is just as important to producers in identifying hotspots where they can make climate-friendly improvements. Lastly, besides climate change, the EU climate label should consider other concerns, such as biodiversity loss and pesticide use. On this last point, Mr Weidema pointed out that including different types of impacts to be expressed in a single number with one label would require weighting them against each other.

The workshop will inform a forthcoming STOA study on the topic, carried out by Bo Weidema. As the workshop demonstrated, more research is needed about the best design and methodology for a climate labelling framework.

A webstream of the event is available on our website.

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