Swedish “climate impact labels” on a bio-fuel dispenser courtesy of https://twitter.com/gronabilister?s=20

A remarkable bit of good news about CV-19, albeit with reprehensible economic and social repercussion, is the startling drop in greenhouse gas emissions in the wake of a microscopic pathogen.

What started in North Vancouver in 2016, and quickly became oil industry greenwash, has spread outside the confines of a Canadian policy experiment. City of Cambridge, Massachusetts will soon have its own kind of warning label on gas pumps. One that could state: “burning fossil fuels causes climate change with major health impacts increasing overtime”; according to a newly released article in the British Medical Journal.

“Warming labels” on gas pumps would disclose to consumers invisible public health and environmental damage incurred through gasoline combustion. Interestingly, “climate impact rating labels”(above) in Sweden, designed for conventional fuel pumps, bio-fuel dispensers and EV charging stations, are already beginning to appear on the latter two, but have been “delayed” until Fall 2021 on the former.

Physicist Drew Shindell estimates 1 liter of gasoline (non-diesel) produces $2.34 in external costs (about $6.50 per gallon). Warming labels will utilize transparency and social norms in fuel markets where public support for strong action to reduce carbon pollution while growing, remains variable and does not reflect the social cost they already pay.

In a free society, adoption of low-carbon transport will need to be freely chosen, to be sustaining. Dramatic reductions in transportation emissions means adoption of new technologies, policies and behavioral change which individuals must demand (and ultimately adopt), and a more organic demand for these solutions will be precipitated by changes in attitude towards our “everyday” consumption of gasoline.

Warming labels would ostensibly act as a social point in which a normal fill up shifts from acceptable to an unacceptable condition known as social tipping points. A comprehensive, consumer-led shift away from fossil fuel in transport in other words, will be facilitated by a collapse in trust for the current fossil fuel-powered system. Labels signaling a 24/7 message of harm to the public act as a form of deliberative transformation that communities and societies must now face that become self-reinforcing within social networks and collective behavior. And warming labels stigmatizing conventional fuels while favoring less carbon-intense alternatives, could begin the process of moving from our current fossil fuel powered order, to something more benign. Succinctly, any meaningful push into less carbon-intense alternatives will require public consent (eg. the long-haul political support that will undergird the policies necessary to implement them).

Research on “eco-labels” on the fresh apple market in Colorado, demonstrate how positive, self-reinforcing feedback could help move transport fuel markets away from conventional fossil fuel. Eco-labels on apples providing information to the consumer on the amount of GHG’s emitted from the production and distribution of apples, utilized moral licensing as a tool of social norms by “shocking” the supply and demand for fresh apples and “collapsing” demand for imported apples (with their higher carbon footprint).

Eco-labels reduced carbon emissions indirectly by directing apple consumers towards the “better choice”, which was locally produced with a lower carbon footprint rating, reducing carbon emissions by 7%. Although no specific efficacy data for warming labels is available yet, the research on eco-labels for apples suggest they facilitated consumer agreement; i.e. greater demand for low-carbon apples as the best choice; which simultaneously enabled a response on the supply side, and their meatier emissions reductions. With fossil fuel interest in Sweden likely behind the delaying tactics of “eco-label” legislation– bio-fuel suppliers for example, with their lower carbon intensity, are tagging their product now, on a voluntary basis, in order to publicize their fuels as a “better” choice.

Although warming labels’ main purpose is visibility of public health harms and norms, their supporting educational function, involving audiences in a major cause of climate change, may be pivotal in accelerating greater social support to reduce fossil fuel use.

Research shows many continue to, critically, believe that global warming is caused by stratospheric ozone depletion and not primarily from fossil fuel combustion. Research shows people consistently tend to conflate the greenhouse effect with ozone layer depletion, and air pollution with climate change; with powerful emissions- policy implications. More consumers knowing the ill effects from gasoline combustion will be needed because consumer demand for these less carbon-intense alternatives will ultimately determine future emissions.

Of course, gas consumers encountering the label and stuck with the vehicle they currently own, can’t choose between better alternatives. However, transparency and moral licensing in oil markets, where consumers of oil products already make hazy climate change connections, would more clearly communicate that conventional fuels are bad, much like the inconvenient time a smoker encounters a health warning on a cigarette pack. The label gambit then, as opposed to more politically tenuous solutions like carbon taxes, increases the odds that over time these notices will change behavior, where the label information engages a personal choice and a physical action. Without transparency and where “distance psychology” rules, public apathy towards the more aggressive carbon-reducing actions needed will persist. Warming labels therefore, might help increase dissonance between gas consumption and climate change harms- and mobilize the very people who can do something about it.

Founder of the non-profit, Think Beyond the Pump. The group promotes a climate/public health warning label on all points of fossil purchase.