London Goes Carbon Crazy

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by: Joel Makower

To paraphrase Kermit: It isn't easy being red, white, and blue.

Arriving in London this past week was something of a shock to the system, a jolt of reality that was both delightful and disarming. The town seems to have gone carbon crazy, offering up a display of initiatives from both the public and private sectors that highlighted how far behind the U.S. has fallen. The consciousness about carbon here seems to be sky-high.

Within minutes of deplaning at Heathrow on Wednesday, I was greeted by this intriguing headline: "GREEN LABELS FOR SHOPPERS." Suffice to say, as someone who's been tracking green consumer and labeling issues for nearly two decades, it caught my eye.

The story, in the Evening Standard, turned out to be more than typical British tabloid hyperbole:

Everything we buy could have "carbon footprint" labels to tell us how green the product is under a government plan unveiled today.

Just as food carries warnings on salt, sugar, and fat, the new labels would carry a sign or figure to alert shoppers to the CO2 emissions used.

The label could be based on a "traffic light" system that would show red for highly wasteful products and green for those with lowest impact on the planet. The scheme, which will be the first in the world, was unveiled by climate change minister Ian Pearson.

Note the use of the words "would" and "could." The program, created jointly by Britain's Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs and the Carbon Trust, a government advisory body, is far from ready to go. The announcement, in fact, kicked off an 18-month research project to determine which stages of the manufacturing process should be included in the calculation.

Still, it's an ambitious, even audacious, plan, and some players already are moving things along. Walkers Snacks Ltd., a maker of crisps (potato chips, to us Yanks), already has added carbon labeling to its products. And Tesco, the U.K.'s largest supermarket chain, announced in January that it would be the first supermarket chain in the world to assign a carbon label to every product on its shelves. It said the label would record the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during the production, transport, and consumption of the 70,000 products it sells.

Tesco is the largest U.K. supermarket, but hardly the only one that has found its green gene. Britain's four top chains — Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury, and Morrisons — are vying to out-green one another in the public's eyes, variously improving their products and practices. "An out-and-out arms race," as one of my London friends put it. And none of them is considered the "greenest" supermarket. Thoe bragging rights belong to the Waitrose chain, according to one report.

Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer, which sells both groceries and apparel, announced plans earlier this year to go carbon neutral by 2012 and has a 100-point action plan to get there. The program is called Plan A ("Because there is no Plan B") and is aggressively touted in its stores.

London itself is greening up its act, with Mayor Ken Livingstone — Britain's counterpart to Arnold Schwarzenegger, at least from an environmental perspective — vowing to reduce the city's carbon emissions by 60% within 20 years. Overall, nearly 200 British cities have a signed a pledge to take action, known as the Nottingham Declaration.

In the midst of all this, of course, was President Bush's seemingly sudden change of heart on Kyoto — or, at least, his pronouncement that the climate crisis is, after all, real and that the U.S. "takes this issue seriously." His words were widely derided by the British and other Europeans. ("Leading from the rear on emissions," opined the Financial Times). I found myself having to do a bit of explaining of and apologizing for my country's laggard ways.

On my first full day in London, I met with Julia Hailes, arguably the birth mother of the green consumer movement. Hailes co-authored the 1987 bestseller "The Green Consumer Guide" and co-founded, with John Elkington, the think tank SustainAbility. (I wrote the U.S. edition of the book, published as "The Green Consumer" in 1990, as well as the U.S. edition of two other books Hailes co-authored.) She recently authored a new edition.

I asked Hailes about the government's proposed carbon labeling program, expecting her to be enthusiastically supportive. To my surprise, her enthusiasm was tepid. "I'm interested as opposed to excited. I'm not convinced it in itself is going to go far enough," she told me. "I think that the process of doing it is, at the moment, more significant than the end result, because I'm not sure that the end result will be all that speedy or effective."

Hailes said that another idea being discussed in government circles and elsewhere is "personal carbon trading," in which individuals are allocated carbon credits — say, for travel and home energy use. Individuals who needed more credits could buy them from others who didn't need them — a personal cap-and-trade system that could help to put a value on carbon for everyday consumers.

Said Hailes: "If you start having carbon quotas for people, one of the real benefits of that is people are going to start evaluating the value of what they're buying versus the carbon credits they're expending, in the same way that somebody on a diet is asking, 'Is that chocolate cake good enough for me to break my diet?' Or someone on a budget asks, 'Do I really want to spend my money on that?'"

It was clear that carbon labeling and personal carbon trading are part of a larger effort to foment a carbon mentality among British consumers.

You could see signs of it everywhere — in stores, in media, in billboards and broadsides. ("Lower carbon footprint, lower price," read one bus shelter ad for the Renault Eco2 automobile.) This is not entirely surprising for a place where gas sells for the equivalent of $6.50 a gallon, thanks to taxes designed to discourage consumption. (Gas sells for about that price in Norway, too, from where this is being written, despite the fact that Norway is the third-largest crude oil exporter in the world.)

In another sharp contrast with the U.S., carbon and climate are now part of a broad political consensus in Britain. "No one from any of the political parties would come out in opposition to environmental regulations these days," said one business reporter I met with. Even the Confederation of British Industry, the trade group for mainstream business (the equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), has an effort underway to "analyse the barriers, beyond carbon price, to realization of the opportunities, especially in residential and corporate energy efficiency and low carbon power generation."

Granted, sometimes the Brits can go a bit overboard. Example: A radio station is urging Londoners to stage a one-hour blackout during the summer solstice as "one huge message to the world." On June 21, from 9-10 p.m., citizens are being asked to switch off their lights and appliances. It's called Lights Out London.

Call it symbolic, a midsummer night's dream, or whatever. But it's yet another sign of how climate fever has caught on here — a vivid contrast to the American approach, which seems to favor living in the dark all year long.

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