Wif we could pick up a bag of potato chips at the grocery store and know, just by looking at the label, the climate impact as well as the calorie count? We’re not there yet—at least not for most products in the United States—but a new online tool released by Swedish climate information company CarbonCloud brings us closer to being able to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions of a grocery list as easily as we would with nutritional values. It’s not quite ready to start the carbon metering revolution, but it’s a start.
To test it out, I volunteered to run my editor’s weekly shopping list through the database and, by choosing the lowest-emitting products and brands, I ended up saving her the equivalent of 83.8kg of CO2, about the same as driving a gasoline-powered car for 208 miles. And he still eats Ben & Jerry’s for dessert, as long as he chooses the non-dairy Half Baked ice cream (2 kg CO2 per kg of ice cream) over the regular Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough (4 kg CO2/kg). (A pint of ice cream is about 0.25 kg)
When I was a kid, my parents relied on my weekly allowance on the money I saved them by clipping coupons. Too bad I can’t turn the carbon savings into an increase. At this point in the site’s development, it’s about the only way it would be worth going through the cumbersome process again, even if it helps climate change.
Food and agriculture account for nearly a quarter of global emissions. However, unlike electricity generation (25%) and transport (14%), little has been done to reduce the climate impact of what we eat. However, this is crucial: a recently published study in Nature Climate Change found that our current food system could add 1°C to global warming by the end of the century, putting us well past the 1.5°C (2.7°F) limit that helps us avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis.
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Consumers could play an important role in pushing food companies to reduce emissions by choosing low- or net-carbon products, but not without data, says David Bryngelsson, CEO and founder of CarbonCloud. The confusion comes from a food industry rendered inscrutable by multiple layers of suppliers—a frozen Thai microwave meal, for example, could have a dozen or more ingredients, each sourced from a different state or even country, each from which produces different amounts of emissions. Quantifying them all requires the expertise of a climate scientist. Comparing one microwave meal with another requires a standardized impact assessment system. While most food companies publish emissions data in the fine print of corporate sustainability reports, few consumers will take the time to analyze the details and choose accordingly.
Now there is no need, according to Bryngelsson. CarbonCloud just launched its free, searchable online database listing the carbon footprint of 10,000 name-brand food and beverage products found on American grocery shelves, from Campbell’s Soup to Lipton tea, Barilla pasta and Tyson packaged meat. Each item on the ClimateHub website has a total emissions label by weight. Consumers looking for more detail can click to discover the percentage of emissions from transportation, packaging, processing and agricultural practices, or in some cases dig even deeper to look at sourcing and component-level emissions. “We start with the consumer because they feed money into the food supply system,” says Bryngelsson. “They need to start making informed choices and if those choices lean towards better climate performance, there is an incentive for food producers to start diversifying. That’s what we’re looking for.”
The idea isn’t exactly new—the world’s first carbon label, introduced by the Carbon Trust, debuted at a UK grocery chain in 2007 with labels on everything from sugar to laundry detergent to toilet paper. But the program was discontinued a few years later due to poor uptake and low consumer interest. That’s starting to change, says Bryngelsson. Consumers are far more climate aware than a decade ago – a 2020 survey commissioned by the Carbon Trust and conducted by YouGov found that two-thirds of consumers in the UK, US and many European countries support carbon labeling of products. Several companies, such as oat milk innovators Oatley, are already putting on their own labels to get ahead of the trend.
CarbonCloud was launched to help companies such as Oatley, Dole and baby food maker Little Freddie assess their own carbon impacts. That expertise forms the basis of ClimateHub’s dataset, says Bryngelsson, who worked on carbon accounting methods as a researcher at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology before moving on to found CarbonCloud. “We know the effects of different agricultural products in different regions. We know what electricity systems look like, we know what transport routes are commonly followed and what vehicles are used.” By breaking supply chains into modules and then linking publicly available data for each sector, he was able to calculate the total emissions of tens of thousands of products in the US and Europe.
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Overall, it could be a powerful tool for reducing greenhouse gases—CarbonCloud claims to have the world’s largest database of food emissions, which, if widely adopted by climate-conscious consumers, could force changes in industry. “Once you start labeling things, consumers will demand more responsibility and lower carbon footprints,” says Bryngelsson. This may be true. However, a closer look at the data set shows that it’s not exactly prime time.
I researched every item on my editor’s list with an eye toward minimizing carbon emissions whenever possible. “Coffee creamer” had many options, from whole milk (2kg CO2/kg) to various brands of oat and nut milk alternatives (0.6kg CO2/kg). So far, so obvious: it is widely known that meat and dairy products have a much higher impact on the climate than plant products. But entries for non-dairy flavored creams such as butter pecan or hazelnut surprised me, reaching 20kg CO2/kg. When I clicked for details, it was disappointingly sparse, only stating that 99% of emissions came from agriculture. It was only by researching the ingredient list on the cream manufacturer’s website that I began to understand the reason for the difference: the main ingredient is palm oil, a major climate offender due to deforestation.
And while Bryngelsson’s goal for ClimateHub is to make companies compete to reduce impact, most food shares the same emissions across categories: pasta, regardless of brand, nets 2kg CO2/kg. The same goes for granola and salsa, whether organic or not, which would presumably have an impact on reducing the use of high-emission fertilizers. If Chobani’s raspberry-flavored Greek yogurt (2 kg CO2/kg) emits the same amount of carbon equivalent as competitor Danone, it’s hard to see the incentive for any company to change the status quo. Bryngelsson disagrees, citing research showing that consumers are more likely to think positively of a brand that can demonstrate it has reduced the carbon footprint of its products, and are also willing to pay a small premium to buy it.
Class-wide standard emissions are a starting point, says Bryngelsson. The next step is for individual companies and suppliers to weigh their own reduction efforts, whether it’s electric transport, renewable energy or recycled packaging. “We can produce zero carbon food. But we need 1,000 small business decisions and innovations to get there,” he says. “By making this information available, we will make this movement work.” These actions can be made visible to consumers by connecting them to the supply chain unit by product, reducing overall emissions. To do this, companies must register with ClimateHub, starting in the low hundreds of dollars per month per listing. So far, only a few have done so, but Bryngelsson expects more uptake now that the data set is public.
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It took me more than an hour to go through the 20 items on my editor’s grocery list to find the lowest possible emissions through ClimateHub’s dataset, and the process was both frustrating—the search function is basic at best—and enlightening. Frozen skinless farm-raised salmon fillets, at 10 kg CO2/kg, are a much better climate buy than their wild-caught Pacific salmon cousins at 60 kg CO2/kg. Better to buy a Starbucks Cold-brew (2 kg CO2/kg) than a pumpkin spice latte (10 kg CO2/kg). I can recommend Frito-Lay Spicy Nacho Tortilla Chips (4 kg CO2/kg) over Doritos with 7 kg CO2/kg, but I still can’t figure out what makes them stand out. I want the system to work, but I can’t imagine the average grocery store customer doing so much homework just to lessen the impact of dinner.
There are dozens of organizations like CarbonCloud that promise to help companies calculate their carbon footprint, and just as many apps and websites that offer consumers a way to shop better. But data sets and calculations vary widely. CarbonCloud may be the closest to a standardized method of assessing the carbon emissions of our food products, but ultimately the only thing that will really make a difference to the average 13 seconds a customer spends choosing a grocery item is publishing a clear label for the climate in the products.
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