Sweden soon will require climate-change labels on gas pumps. These “warming labels” do more than remind drivers that burning fossil fuel contributes to climate change. They draw attention to the difference in climate impacts among fuel choices.
Warming labels would also be good for California. California’s future clean transportation system will need to insure that everyone is making the cleanest fuel consumption choices available.
Warming labels serve as a market mechanism to position suppliers producing gasoline, bio-fuel, electricity and hydrogen fuel to compete against one another on the merits of sustainability. Electric vehicle charging stations, for example, can make the case for being a lower carbon source. For fossil fuel suppliers, the labels could spark a race toward less carbon-intense fuel products.
It will be vehicle drivers themselves demanding, and ultimately adopting, the behavioral changes and the zero-carbon transport technologies of the future that will reduce emissions in transportation.
With warming labels, everyone starts seeing the climate-impact of gas consumption at the pump. Labels at the pump would help overcome the perception gap between decisions made now and their future effects on our climate.
Simply, labels would counteract the lack of any visible danger when we consume conventional fuels. As a countermeasure to our tendency to feel impotent in a system where the responsibility for change falls on many, labels begin treating individual drivers as the change agents they are.
With only a little more than half of Americans understanding that climate change is human-caused, labels will serve as educational tools.
Becoming aware of the carbon intensity of fuels creates a more immediate feeling of personal responsibility. This feeling will help to develop a new social pressure on behavior. Bans on internal combustion engines and carbon pricing mechanisms — while important — cannot afford to ignore the power of changing social norms around fossil fuel consumption.
Labels do not force anyone to act per se, but instead, add a social mechanism to make the right choices where it is clear all drivers are exposed to the same information. Warming labels will help set the precedent for all California drivers to begin transitioning off of carbon-intensive fuels sooner, rather than 21 years from now.
Kirk R. Smith is a professor of global environmental health at UC Berkeley. Jamie Brooks is the advocacy director for Think Beyond the Pump/OurHorizon.
Originally published at https://www.sfchronicle.com on February 18, 2019.