Saturday, July 11, 2009

Tim Harford on Carbon Footprinting

An excellent essay on a crucial lacuna in our knowledge as we embark on all sorts of grand plans to reduce carbon emissions. We don't know yet what really generates the emissions. For example:
The carbon-footprinting process often produces surprises. An environmentally conscious consumer in the crisps aisle of the supermarket will probably be thinking about packaging or “food miles”. The Carbon Trust reckons that about 1 per cent of the climate impact of a packet of crisps is from moving potatoes around. The largest single culprit is the production of the nitrogen fertiliser, and half of the climate impact in general takes place at the agricultural stage. The point is not that agriculture is always the problem, but that it is very hard for a well-meaning consumer to work out what the green purchasing decision actually is. For this reason, the Carbon Trust has a carbon labelling scheme. The trouble is that many consumers simply do not care enough to pay more or choose a less enjoyable product simply because of the low carbon label.
A government role is necessary, then, but it is even harder for governments to regulate such fine details. All this is why economists continue to advocate some kind of carbon price, which would give an incentive to everyone involved in these complex supply chains to trim carbon dioxide emissions. A modest and credible price for carbon is slowly becoming the conventional policy wisdom. It is a shame we still don’t have it.

The reflection on the travel of the potatoes is one reason 'locavorism' is something I find so unappealing. The case in terms of carbon is generally an empty one. And where I live locavorism would give me the sort of diet I had no choice but to eat forty years ago. No thanks.


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