Back to search

Consumers underestimate the emissions associated with food but are aided by labels

Food production is a major cause of energy use and GHG emissions, and therefore diet change is an important behavioural strategy for reducing associated environmental impacts. However, a severe obstacle to diet change may be consumers’ underestimation of the environmental impacts of different types of food.

The authors show that energy consumption and GHG emission estimates are significantly underestimated for foods, suggesting a possible blind spot suitable for intervention.

In a second study, the authors find that providing consumers with information regarding the GHG emissions associated with the life cycle of food, presented in terms of a familiar reference unit (light-bulb minutes), shifts their actual purchase choices away from higher-emission options. Thus, although consumers’ poor understanding of the food system is a barrier to reducing energy use and GHG emissions, it also represents a promising area for simple interventions such as a well-designed carbon label. 

For example, a carbon label communicates information about the total amount of GHG emissions from within a defined supply chain (for example, from cradle to grave). Carbon labels provide information to consumers that can be factored into purchase choices and also exert pressure on manufacturers and retailers to provide consumers with lower-emission options

Research suggests that the food system contributes 19%–29% of global GHG emissions, which is similar to emissions from US household electricity useMany factors combine to produce such considerable emissions. Agriculture is highly industrialized. Refrigeration and transportation tend to depend heavily on fossil fuels.

Nature Climate Changevolume 9, pages53–58 (2019)