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The challenges of a European climate label

Four detergents with comparable traffic light climate labels

Trying to shop sustainably? Climate labels aim to assist consumers to choose the products that cause the lowest amount of global warming. But are they really effective? And would a general, standardised European climate label help?

We asked Prof. Bo Weidema, an expert at the Danish Centre for Environmental Assessment. On 20 March 2023, he will speak at a workshop on climate labelling organised by the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA). He also is the author of an ongoing STOA study (to be published this summer) on this topic.

Do you think climate labelling of products really has an impact on people’s behaviour and could help save the environment?

Bo Weidema: There is some evidence that climate labelling can affect purchase behaviour. However, unfortunately the effects do not seem very large. More research is needed to determine the actual effects of a large-scale introduction of climate labels.

In general, labelling is a policy option that is mainly relevant to correct certain “information asymmetries” between buyer and seller, that is, when the seller has more information than the buyer. But that is not really the case with climate impacts of products. Here, the producers often know as little as the consumers. To reduce global warming, other policy options would be significantly more effective than labelling.

I already saw supermarkets that introduced a new climate label for their products. What is currently the general state-of-play of this labelling?

Bo Weidema: There is an eagerness by businesses to show that they are doing something about this problem that is so much in focus today. However, the available data foundation is currently not sufficient to provide credible climate labels at the level of individual products.

While working on your study, have there been a few surprising results already?

Bo Weidema: What has surprised me the most is the complexity of creating a robust and credible labelling framework. Not only complex technical and psychological issues need to be considered, but also the relations to other policy initiatives and the interactions with countries outside Europe.

What would be the benefit of a European climate label, and what are the main obstacles to implement such a label?

Bo Weidema: The main benefit would probably be all the underlying improvements that would be necessary before a robust and credible labelling scheme can be launched. Here I am thinking of improvements to our knowledge basis on issues such as high-quality data, consistent calculation methods, and effective communication.

These improvements would also be useful in general for businesses to improve their products and for more effective communication on the impacts of our consumption behaviour.

Useful links:
Making climate-friendly choices: Towards a horizontal framework for a European climate label
European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA)
To watch the recording of this STOA event, please click here
Podcast and article: “What if ecolabels could nudge us to choose greener food?”

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