/ Sustainability

Would carbon-pricing our food products work?

Sustainability is a major consideration for the food I buy, so I’m wondering if carbon pricing may be the way forward. I’d be interested to hear your views.

The London School of Economics defines carbon pricing as ‘a cost applied to carbon pollution to encourage polluters to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they emit into the atmosphere’.

Do you think introducing something like that could lead to more sustainable shopping?

While the origin of the food we buy is often displayed on its packaging, the environmental impact of it reaching our shelves can be quite a bit harder to work out.

There’s lots of research and information available about the environmental impact of producing our food, but I don’t think interpreting it is very straightforward – if it’s not put on the packaging, are we able to make an informed choice?

Controversy and costs

Hypothetically, such measures could make everyday items more expensive and lower demand for others, which wouldn’t be without its controversies.

However, some research suggests that transporting food isn’t usually the main contributor to carbon emissions, but producing the food itself is what causes the most impact.

Would it be beneficial to see that impact on a product’s packaging?

The costs to consumers would also be a concern, so, would other measures, such as ‘carbon ratings’ displayed help better inform purchases?

Making sustainable choices

Clearly it’s not a straightforward issue, but as a consumer who wants to reduce their environmental impact as much as possible, I personally think the more information we have available to us, the better.

From what I’ve seen, the data about the carbon released for different types of products is already out there, but I think we need to make it easier for everyone to access.

But what do you think? Are you trying to become a more sustainable shopper?

Would carbon pricing make a positive impact, or do you think it could actually cause more harm than good? What other methods could we use to help reduce our carbon footprint?

I’d be interested to discuss your thoughts and ideas in the comments.


I would be interested in learning more about carbon pricing and how this would be applied. I expect that business would fight proposals, especially since it could be difficult to calculate the environmental impact. Nevertheless, we need to look at ways of making more sustainable choices.

I prefer to buy UK food where possible, and am prepared to pay more for local produce. I would like to see the origin of food stated clearly, both in the supermarket and on websites for the benefit of those buying online. That is my priority and proper labelling might be an easy first step on the route to encouraging consumers to make more sustainable choices.

It does seem rather ridiculous that food produced locally can cost a lot more than food transported halfway across the world.

I would also like to buy more food produced in this country and see it clearly labelled. Packed or manufactured in the UK is not good enough when the raw ingredients might have been transported from other countries.

Hi Alfa – It’s good to see you back. I don’t understand how imported food can be cheaper but it’s about as environmentally friendly as importing biomass from the US and Canada to burn in our power stations.

By all means add the carbon footprint to all the other information on packaged food but I would take little or no notice of it. There is more to food than such measures that I regard as more important. I would buy home-grown food where sensible (yes, reasonable price is a consideration) and that would include some consideration of air miles. But I would like to think we have generally known and acceptable standards in the UK that I keep hoping will, one day, be properly supported by an inspection regime that is fit for purpose. I also like to support the UK economy.

I would be more concerned to get rid of unnecessary packaging, that has its own carbon implications, as a priority rather than putting even more information on food that will be ignored by the vast majority.

This makes sense Malcolm. The consumer is bombarded with facts when shopping and there is a limit to the number of facts he/she can worry about when in the aisles trying to complete the family shop on a deadline of time and budget and on family preferences. There is on point in buying food the family won’t eat. If we are going to carbonise prices it should be done as part of the cost of providing the items. That way the customer can see the price of something and decide whether it is worth buying without considering its carbon footprint. This will have been calculated in the price.
Like others have said it is worth buying local produce or, at least that which has not come thousands of miles on a boat. Of course, going down that route would deny us many foreign items, like blueberries, some beans, wines from all over the world, etc, etc. You could compile a long list of these things quite easily. These have trade implications with other countries as well. Sharing world food might be seen as a legitimate form of transport and part of life. Perhaps we should look at all foreign commodities and decide which are luxuries, which wasteful and which should be in the shops. Getting a consensus on that would be hard. Your luxury is my necessity and vice-versa. We certainly shouldn’t cherry pick at random. This needs to be done sensibly. There needs to be a policy behind the deprivation of the free market and a new public life style as a result. There also need to be joined up thinking on the whole carbon problem, not just shopping in isolation. This will include the adjustment from where we are now to where we need to be and, crucially, how practically we can get there. There is no point setting unreal targets and expecting the country to conform.

I have no objection to carbon pricing in principle, but it would have to be applied across all products in each category which would in turn require a consistent universal measurement standard diligently complied with. Not impossible, but I feel we are some way off that point.

Would we expect Spanish produce sold in Aberdeen to show a higher carbon price than the same goods sold in Southampton, for example? And within Spanish territory there is a considerable distance between the Canary Islands and Barcelona, so would there need to be a protocol of common reference points? There is a lot that would need to be teased out in this proposition.

The EU sees itself as a single market; it might not be willing to cooperate in a system for the UK that could be seen as divisive between states.

Looking beyond transport, there are so many criteria that affect people’s product choices and it brings into question the whole issue of seasonality which is conditioned by climate, geography, production methods [third world/fair trade, etc], economics, geo-politics and demand.

I think we should get more of the basics right first before we go down the road of micro-detailing consumer selection processes – too much can go wrong or it just ends up being a weak compromise that serves nobody satisfactorily.

We cannot really answer the question “would it work?”, because the mechanisms and aims of carbon pricing are not clearly set out. We have to assume that the overall objective of your Convo teaser, is to reduce the net emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases that result from food production, distribution and consumption.

What about levies on transportation? In the current carbon polluter’s market, it is already profitable to transport NZ butter, lamb and wine half way around the world. What level of punitive tariffs would be necessary to stop that trade, bearing in mind that the average retail markup doubles the cost of these commodities and would largely conceal or absorb the effect of carbon pricing?

How would you account for the carbon footprint of different modes of transport? Distance traveled is not a good indicator of emissions. Taking wine as an example, how would you measure the different impacts of transporting wine from NZ by oil-burning container ship, Bordeaux by nuclear-powered electric train, or Sussex by diesel van? Van is probably worst, if you take into account the whole of life carbon emissions of manufacturing and running a van. And nuclear or wind farm is best. Is everyone happy with the consequences of that choice?

What about taxation on plastic packaging? Again, the actual cost of packaging is minuscule compared to the retail cost of the end product. Manufacturers have chosen to use plastic, because the raw material is so cheap. It is also incredibly versatile – bags, bottles, caps, boxes, inners, outers, wraps can all be made from the same feedstock. It preserves and protects food well, compared to many other materials. So a tax would have to be disproportionately high to offset the benefits and have any effect on consumer choice.

Plastic has practically no CO2 output – until it is burnt. Burning paper also emits CO2. The fact that paper comes from trees that get replanted is a fatuous argument, as no net CO2 is taken out of circulation. New trees absorb CO2 whether from burning hydrocarbons or cellulose – they don’t really care. Glass and metals require vast amounts of energy to refine and manufacture containers. These materials are heavy, and so impact on transportation costs.

Then there is the carbon impact of the food to be measured. The amount of energy from hydrocarbons that goes into modern agriculture is often higher than the energy value of the food itself. This is particularly true of lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and other vegetables increasingly grown under plastic in artificially lit and heated greenhouses. But humans have to eat and healthy food is important, so it is not a simple choice.

How do we measure the relative carbon footprint of food, like grapes, harvested mechanically or by hand? Do we take into account the diesel used by a tractor, but not the CO2 emitted by twenty agricultural workers? Is employing people really a “carbon free” resource?

I certainly don’t mean to disparage the worthy sentiments behind this Convo, nor defend the overuse of plastics. Carbon reduction is in (almost) everyone’s interests on this planet. But all I can see arising from carbon pricing at the micro level of the retail food industry, is an army of bean counters (literally!), a set of tariffs to be manipulated and abused, and some pseudo-independent accreditation agency, that manufacturers can subscribe to and gain the right to add another meaningless logo to their packaging. FairTrade comes to mind as a worthy aim that ends up being used for purely commercial advantage for those that can benefit through association, and is optional for all others.

Finally, I see the majority of producers and manufacturers will not change their processes, packaging and shipping unless it suits them, but will use carbon-offsets to claim they are doing their bit for zero carbon emissions and bamboozle the consumer. Since most carbon offset schemes use tree planting as a way of sequestering carbon, it’s a meaningless claim. Burning oils and plastics releases carbon into the atmosphere that was locked down twenty million years ago. Which food manufacturers are going be around to manage the carbon-absorbing forests for that length of time and how is a one-time levy of 10p on a polythene bag going to pay for it?

Well said, Em.

I am more convinced than ever that population reduction is the real key to the problem. Less demand means less consumption. I don’t know what the global balancing point is but there is no likelihood of reaching it in the next century or two so we might as well start moving in that direction now.

In a society where consumerism rules and consumption makes a major contribution to the economy of countries I agree that we need to reduce population, but how do we kickstart that, or preferably start to reject consumerism.

So just throw away all the restrictions that protect us from Covid? Should work.

Thoughtful and interesting Em. Thankyou. I still think the way forward is a comprehensive, multi faceted, structured plan complete with its targets and time line. Something that is clearly understood by everyone and mandatory. Bits here and bits there, confuse the public and can often be counter-productive. Compilation of this strategy will require research and common sense, both in short supply in some echelons of power.

The size of the world’s population is of itself an obstacle to carbon reduction. How do you educate and get 6 billion micro-consumers to agree on the best choices to make for carbon reduction? By putting a label on a packet?

We are facing a world-wide, life-threatening pandemic, and yet there are many who seek to disrupt the science of dealing with that infection. From the downright defiance of the obstinate anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-isolation cohorts, to sedicious conspiracy theories spreading false information for the consumption of the ignorant.

What hope of getting even half the world’s population on side to adopt a more sustainable food policy? I think government legislation and agreements are the only way to make an effective difference, but both the USA and the UK are moving in the opposite direction by adoption isolationist trade policies. And that is all the result of “democracy” in action.

Agreed, but how do we get our governments to work together to agree priorities and enact the necessary legislation?

We can’t. Too many vested interests.
As far as COVID goes I’m tired of the media pandering to those who believe their rights are deprived by the restrictions being reintroduced and continually taking a negative view of preventive actions.

I am more hopeful that, one day, technology will provide a solution. If fusion or high capacity electrical storage for intermittent solar and wind farm energy becomes viable, we can stop burning fossil fuel altogether – the world’s major source of CO2 emissions. And with excess cheap, non-polluting energy, we can look at more permanent methods of sequestering carbon.

Extracting crude oil to burn for energy always was criminal. The raw material is far too valuable as a chemical feedstuff. Nearly all detergents, paints and plastics are made from oil and it is an important source of hydrogen for making derivative products, like nitrogen-based fertilizer.

We still need to tackle the pollution caused by the use of these hydrocarbon-based end products, but that is a relatively trivial problem, compared to the amount we are using in our transport, generation and heating systems and spraying around the neighbourhood.

Another technology that would help is the increased used of timber in construction. Cutting down a tree and using it as a long term material, rather paper, cardboard or fuel pellets, takes the absorbed carbon out of circulation for the lifetime of the building or furniture. Provided the tree is sourced from a managed forest and replanted, there is a positive benefit.

Of course, there are concerns about the fire risks of wood. Use of timber in UK construction largely went out of fashion following the Great Fire of London in 1666. Instead, we now construct buildings of concrete (a massive source of CO2 emissions), steel (ditto), brick and glass. Then cover them in highly-flammable polyethelene foam to restore the insulating properties of the timber we no longer use.

Excellent post Em that pretty much sums up my thoughts on the subject. Many unsubstantiated claims will be made and planting a little tree just doesn’t justify those claims.

Too many claims that can’t all be true are made already like sustainable palm oil.

Who gets the black marks for destroying the trees and land to make way for our ‘sustainable’ food? How much rainforest has been destroyed to accommodate the recent mass production of plant-based foods?

Andrea Williams says:
1 October 2020

The most worrying reason for the continued destruction of the rainforest is for the huge production of soy to feed cattle production worldwide. Only a small fraction is used for human consumption. With respect please look at the evidence.

As we head towards more and more electricity from renewable sources (hopefully including tidal at some point) then the energy used to recover for reuse truly recyclable materials will not be a carbon issue. Previous Convos have proposed that, first, we remove unnecessary packaging (penalties are probably needed to kickstart that) and then, where packaging is essential, use materials that can be properly recycled – glass and aluminium being much better in this regard than most plastics.

But first, let’s campaign to get rid of as much packaging as possible. Add the initiative to use your own “permanent” packaging when shopping. We need someone to take a constructive approach to this.

I agree, Malcolm. But even renewable energy doesn’t come for nothing. The giant offshore turbines consume a lot of energy in their manufacture, solar panels probably include quantities of precious mineral materials, harnessing tidal power on any scale involves big engineering, and electricity transmission requires expensive infrastructure which takes a great deal of energy. We should not delude ourselves that we can go on squandering resources because they are labelled as ‘renewable’.

We must press on with decarbonising the economy but using less of everything is the way forward.

It takes two big gas-guzzling trucks to call at our house just to remove our waste; one every week for either general or recyclable waste and one every fortnight for garden waste. The recycling bin is usually full to the brim, the rubbish bin usually only has a few kilos of waste in it, and the garden waste bin is usually nearly full. A smaller truck deals with the food waste bin every week.

Overall this is not an efficient system but hygiene requirements compel a weekly food waste collection and sheer volume demands a frequent recycling collection. However, on a balance of efficiency, economy, and public safety the system is probably about as good we can reasonably get for present needs but it would be good if we could work to cut out the general [unrecyclable] waste altogether; most of ours by volume is unfortunately single use plastic from packaging.

Now that I have the compost bin back in operation I can reduce [but not eliminate] the fortnightly garden waste collection. It would be interesting to know if there is still unsatisfied demand for material made from recyclable waste such as paper and card; I expect there still is for metal and glass because it saves mineral extraction and the energy required for reprocessing it is no different from that used to process virgin material.

I have a confession to make. I am no more than a basic recycler. Glass and metal go in one bin, paper in another, plastics in a third. I don’t look at the recycling codes on the plastics; life is too short and I have other things to do. So I’m saying sorry to the rest of the world who are more responsible and I will probably be banned from future Convos. What I would like is, for example, materials to be automatically recognised at the recycler, the minimum number of material types used and hopefully most plastics packaging consigned to history rather than landfill and the oceans.

🙁 Yesterday evening the fan inside my boiler became noisy and then failed to start up. This morning I sent a text to the local guy who serviced it in August. I expect that having a new fan fitted will not be cheap, and the alternative is to replace the boiler which is about 22 years old.

Thankfully it’s not too cold. I have a thermostatic electric radiator in the conservatory and three old fan heaters that I must check for electrical safety. I miss the wall-mounted fan heater that I had in the bathroom of my last house.

It’s better than having a boiler break down in the middle of winter.

Is this your contribution to decarbonisation, Wavechange? Think of the energy savings you will make and the reduction in your carbon footprint. Lower gas bill and less VAT to pay as well – but go easy on the fan heaters, though, or you will waste more than you save.

Wooly jumpers are cheaper than electricity. I’d hope the fan can be replaced to keep your (otherwise reliable) boiler going. My two old Espaces go in for their delayed MoTs next week so I have my fingers crossed that I can keep them going.

I meant to post in The Lobby.

And woolly socks Wavechange. Cold feet will chill the blood before its pumped back into the circulation – well that’s my theory! Do you have an emergency hot water back up? Thanks for the reminder, my boiler is due for its annual MOT. I hope your boiler can be fixed soon, It’s turned very cold in my neck of the woods.

The Lobby has a revolving door which helps to keep the heat in but sometimes it’s a struggle to get in there if a trolley load of jokes is being wheeled in.

Thanks Beryl and Malcolm. I have an immersion heater and my smart meter confirms that it is working. I’ve been advised to keep the old boiler when I have had it serviced.

Do the laundry and the dishwashing in the early evening so the heat warms up the house when it gets dark.

A couple of hot water bottles on your knees will help to keep you warm Wavechange and a fleece Slanket if you have one.

In Yorkshire we used to smear ourselves with fat and then wrap up in old newspaper. A hot bath in the spring got us ready for the warmer weather. Trouble is, good fat’s ‘ard to come by nowadays, lad.

It’s warm with the electric radiator on and the best way to warm up the kitchen is to do some baking. Warmer weather comes on Monday.

You must have come from one of the wealthier Yorkshire families then. In Glasgow, it was a choice of eating the fat, or starving to make a straw taper to see by.

See also:-https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ue7wM0QC5LE

”During the second world war I was brought up on a farm in Devon owned by my aunt She used to say that she and her siblings where rubbed with goose grease and sewn up in red flannel from October to March to ward off colds and chills.
Alan Reeves, Hampshire.

Red flannel eh. We couldn’t afford that in Yorkshire. Wavechange, you might have some worn-out tartan you could use?

Adrian Miller says:
10 December 2020

A fully qualified servicer would know that boiler fans need a ‘special’ lubricant that copes with the higher operating temperature. It is expensive stuff. They sometimes are tempted to do a cheap job using ordinary oil and are rewarded for doing so by the customer giving them more work with a return visit.

Chris Hicks says:
28 September 2020

While I can afford the extra costs on staples, there are too many who can’t. I would favour mandatory carbon footprint labelling, in whatever way is most practicable, as an alternative to what would be a carbon tax effectively impacting the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest..

Global warming is also going to impact the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. It is not a valid reason to do nothing. We already have “taxes” to deal with different forms of pollution. Should we not pay for waste water treatment and refuse collection and disposable because it impacts more on the poorest?

The question is how to reduce CO2 emissions – ideally without impacting on the poorest – but their behaviour needs to be modified along with the rest of us. If making some foods more expensive without increasing the cost of others is the only way to do it, then I don’t see that substituting English butter for New Zealand will have a detrimental impact on the poor.

Of course, if the carbon tax is used to offset the cost of British butter, then everyone’s a winner.

Expanding on Em’s last point, I have for a long time thought that some of the extra revenue from environmental taxes should be used to increase benefits for the poor so they are no worse off and could be better off if they alter their consumption patterns. Alternatively, other taxes could be reduced and my favourite for that would be to raise the threshold for National Insurance Contributions so as to benefit those on low earnings.

Vicky Heaton says:
25 May 2021

Yes! We need more information on this in order to make informed choices