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Understanding carbon calories could be the key to reducing our footprint

We now have the data and technology to track our carbon usage. Companies such as Carbon Calories are using this information to spur individuals to combat climate change.

If you’ve ever gone on a diet or paid attention to your daily calorie intake, you’ll no doubt have studied the labels of countless food products to help get a better understanding of what you’re eating. It’s become an expected practice of modern living and was first introduced to the public over 25 years ago when nutritional labelling became mandatory.

The impact this has had on our individual behaviours suggests that informative labels are a good way to get the public to evaluate how they could improve their habits on a day-to-day basis. This is partly why a newly announced carbon footprint label for all food items at US restaurant Just Salad has been receiving notable buzz this week, and why emerging technology that could automatically track all of our carbon emissions is being discussed at length by publications such as The Economist. Harnessing data to inform citizens of their personal carbon usage could be huge for our efforts to tackle climate change, and is becoming increasingly desirable by Gen Z consumers who want better clarity over how their actions are harming the planet.

It’s also a window of opportunity for start-ups and businesses that offer precise information on personal carbon usage, such as Carbon Calories and Enfuce . There’s an appetite for tracking carbon in much the same way as monitoring calories, and it may be the ideal way to get the everyday consumer on board with making small changes to minimise their environmental impact.

What are carbon labels?

Just Salad’s carbon label announcement is actually the first of its kind, at least for restaurant chains in the US. All meals will have their carbon footprint clearly displayed on its menu by September 21st this year and will be calculated by combining all of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each ingredient.

To work out these emission numbers, the entire carbon lifecycle of a food is taken into account. This includes every agricultural detail of its production such as fertilizer use, manure, land conversion, livestock digestion, transportation, food packaging, and final processing. If you didn’t already know, meat tends to have a far, far higher carbon footprint than vegan food when calculated this way, and is one of the main contributors to climate change. Beef mince, for example, produces twenty times more carbon than Quorn mince per kg, which is insane.

Carbon labels are a great way to quickly inform consumers of how their eating habits affect the climate and would likely help the everyday person fully understand how bad red meat is for the planet. We’d have a clear cut way to compare vegan food with traditional dairy and meat products which, in turn, could encourage more people to make the inevitable switch.

Why are businesses optimistic that this will lead to individual change?

The behavioural changes resulting from nutrition labels in the nineties are evidence to suggest that they do work in helping individuals to rethink basic habits.

It’s hoped that by making carbon information clear and obvious it’ll have a similar effect on how we perceive greenhouse gases in relation to food. For many of us, the relationship between meals on our plates and the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere is distant and fragmented, and you’d be hard pressed to find many people at all who know exactly how their diets affect climate change.

A 2018 study in the Nature Climate Change journal found that the majority of consumers underestimate the impact agriculture has on our climate, but would be willing to change if they were more informed. One Belgian study from 2014 also found that using labels with environmental information on them helped to improve the carbon footprint of consumer diets by around 5%.

What’s more, it seems that the public are fairly supportive of carbon labels being widely introduced to food products, with one study stating that over 50% of consumers are prepared to change how they eat to lower their carbon footprint. Introducing carbon labels would simply help more of us to understand exactly what’s going on with our food and would make it far easier for us to change our diets in ways we’re already willing to do.

How could we see this technology and innovation used in the future?

Although big restaurant chains have yet to embrace carbon labels on a wide scale, it isn’t out of the question to expect an industry shift in the next few years. Demand for transparency over carbon is increasing significantly and companies such as Unilever have begun to use new labels with environmental information on tens of thousands of products. In addition, Quorn began labelling its products with carbon information in June of this year, and milk brand Oatly has been doing the same in Europe since 2018.

In terms of technology services, we’re likely to see start-ups like Carbon Calories grow substantially as interest in greenhouse emissions and food increases. These services allow easy comparisons of carbon usage between similar products and brands, a concept that could become a necessity in coming decades.

We’ll have to see if carbon labels truly take off and become as common place as nutritional labels. Some suppliers of certain products may be hesitant to comply with new rules, especially producers of meats such as lamb and beef, and if carbon labels do significantly alter consumer behaviour it may face push back from the dairy and meat industry. The reality though is that we’ll be forced to shift our diets away from meat in the coming decades anyway, and carbon calories may be the key we need to get a public majority on board.