We put warning labels on cigarettes. Why not on gas pumps?

Starting early next year and already appearing on bio-fuel and EV charging stations, Sweden will require climate change information labels on gas pumps nationwide.

The labels do more than remind customers that burning fossil fuel contributes to climate change by comparing the climate impacts of different energy sources, with conventional gasoline receiving the “highest” climate-impact rating, biofuels “moderate,” and electricity the lowest.

Per Östborn from the Swedish Association of Green Motorists, (the NGO that spearheaded the Swedish label legislation), and Jakob Lundgren of the Swedish Environmental Ministry argue reducing these emissions will require a fundamental shift in consumer attitudes towards the climate harms of gasoline consumption. Put in the California context, California drivers themselves will ultimately need to demand and adopt California’s long-term transportation emissions goals.

As a species, we are not so good at negotiating unintelligible risk. Climate change policy remains a low-salience issue for most of us largely because the worst of it arrives sometime in the ambiguous future, and the greenhouse gases we produce are invisible. This “distance psychology” creates a barrier towards the more aggressive actions needed.

Yet we also have a unique ability to plan for the future. From this perspective, “warming labels” at the pump would increase the saliency of climate risk in our present lives by disclosing the unseen harms to the climate from fossil-fuel consumption.

On the demand for conventional gasoline and diesel, Sweden is introducing what is known as “social norms marketing” to its transportation fuel markets that will coincide with “built-in” emissions-cutting policies like cap-and-trade, more electric-vehicle charging stations, and biofuels. The policy reflects Sweden’s recognition that transport emissions are ultimately determined through consumer choice.

Of course, I’m not suggesting labels are all that stand between our current unsustainable system and a sustainable one; but their essential role, explains Östborn, lies in how they can reach the individuals deciding these emissions now.

While most understand that burning gasoline equals climate change, Östborn argues this knowledge is abstract and diffused amongst many actors. It is much easier- without labels at the pump — to feel impotent to act on what is a systemic problem requiring broad policy solutions. The “tragedy of this commons” of course is that the whole system depends on everyone making cleaner transportation choices.

The labels will help suspend this sense of powerlessness by triggering a greater sense of personal urgency. They focus instead on the “who” and the “when” of the greenhouse gases problem. The labels can start shaping policies by challenging the normalcy of fossil fuels.

With the climate-science community calling for more aggressive climate action, I argue inducing a greater sense of urgency is a necessary social politic. Östborn explains that a unique benefit of labels is that they can create pressure from below; they can act as front-line soldiers in a call for urgency when current politics (still) sees the worst of climate change from a distance. Better, labels can do what other policies can’t: they are a countermeasure to our tendency to see the risk of climate change in distant terms in order for us to get on with the political business of more aggressive emission policies now.

On the supply side, Lundgren describes the labels as market mechanisms working in tandem with Sweden’s existing emission policies. By comparing different energy sources, the labels will let Sweden clearly illustrate the very low climate impact of charging an electric vehicle (on a very clean electricity supply) versus the high impact of filling up on conventional fossil fuels. This will allow various fuel suppliers to compete with sustainability on a more level playing field.

This competition is distinct from Sweden’s newly enacted cap-and-trade system in that it sets a precedence to decrease emissions faster than the cap demands. The result is there is now less emphasis on the cap and more on fuel suppliers competing for lower emissions. Meanwhile, California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, for instance, does not consider lowering consumer demand as a method to lower emissions.

Introducing a feeling of personal responsibility says Östborn, and actually seeing the negative effect of your choice at the pump, cannot be achieved by current policies that tick away anonymously in the background.

Sweden believes this feeling of personal responsibility for the carbon pollution we emit will undergird the social politics needed to implement low-carbon technologies and elevate policies that disincentivize gas-powered transportation (think congestion pricing, carbon taxes, and other policies).

Implementing warning labels at the pump will help develop a new norm of reducing or avoiding the climate impact altogether — of our transportation choices as a more normal course of action.

Photo by Bart Heird on Creative Commons.

Originally published at https://mobilitylab.org on October 10, 2018.

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

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