While large-scale efforts to curb greenhouse gases aren't likely to happen in the near future, advocates are thinking of smaller ways to reduce emissions in the meantime.
Recently, Vanderbilt University professor Michael Vandenbergh and two others proposed the idea of voluntarily labeling carbon footprints on products in the journal Nature Climate Change.
"We know from other areas of labeling that labels do have some effect on behavior," said Vandenbergh, an environmental law professor and director of the Climate Change Research Network. "They don't drive all behavior but are certainly effective."
He's quick to point out that private measures like this can't solve climate change alone but says they still help. Vandenbergh estimates it could take years before any type of international cap-and-trade system fully develops. Any emissions between now and whenever, or if ever, that happens will likely stick around for a long time. "The emissions we don't reduce now will be in the atmosphere for a long time. This is a measure that would help fill the gap," Vanderbergh said.
The paper, written with Thomas Dietz at Michigan State University and Paul Stern at the National Research Council, doesn't precisely identify a label. It does, however, cite one by the London-based Carbon Trust, which certifies items in the United Kingdom like potato chips and hand dryers by adding up their amount of greenhouse gas emissions in kilograms.
But what's lacking is an internationally recognized certification encompassing a broad range of products.
Developing a label
Vandenbergh envisions a nonprofit or non-governmental organization developing a label of this type, similar to what the Marine Stewardship Council does for fish. MSC has certifications for fish caught wild and fisheries that are sustainable. Although not mandatory, the labels have caught on in grocery stores. Walmart Canada recently pledged to sell only MSC-certified fish by 2013.
Another example he points to is the dolphin-safe label on tuna, explaining that it was very hard to sell without the label once controversies over tuna fisheries harming and sometimes killing dolphins became known. Other labels, like nutrition ones, for example, have had mixed results. Green labels also sometimes leave out things. Recent carbon footprint calculations of Brazilian beef left out the amount of deforestation caused by raising the cattle, according to a study in Environmental Science and Technology.
Vandenberg admits labeling isn't perfect. "It's likely there are weaknesses in this system," he said. "The question is whether it's viable as an alternative. And if government can't act and we are getting some sustainability as result of that step, then it's important."
Apart from the Carbon Trust label, organizations like Toronto-based CarbonCounted and Bethesda, Md.-based CarbonFund.org have also developed carbon certifications.
In Madison, Wis., one organization is attempting to develop a smartphone application that scans food products to reveal their carbon footprints. The technology is there for it. The information is not.
Not enough information to work with
To develop the app, SnowShoeFood CEO Claus Moberg worked with three University of Wisconsin graduate students to find all the carbon footprint information they could on two brands of locally made ice cream.
"It's taken us four months and a lot of legwork to assemble our best bet of a carbon footprint for the two types of ice cream," Moberg said. And he still doesn't think what they ended up with is enough to be acceptable in an academic evaluation of a food item's carbon footprint. "It's almost impossible to do this as an outsider," he added.
If food companies made all carbon footprint data of their items available, the SnowShoe app would be able to rank them from smallest carbon footprints to largest. But until they come forward, it can't.