California needs to add eco-labels to gas pumps

Person filling up on gas, thinking "Should I really use up fossil fuels?"
Annika Constantino/Staff

As the climate change crisis deepens, there remains an urgent call for clearer and more direct measures that address it. In finding solutions to California’s largest source of emissions, California drivers will need better information. To help drivers more fully comprehend the climate crisis and, most importantly, tackle their own transport-related emissions, a climate change information label at the gas pump would be a cheap and efficient way to start this process.

Indeed, other countries have begun this practice already. Starting next year, Sweden will require climate change labels on all gas pumps, and recently, it moved to ban sales of internal combustion engines by 2030. These “eco-labels” do more than remind drivers that burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change; they draw attention to the differences in climate impacts between various fuel choices by assigning comparisons between them. Conventional gasoline receives a “high climate impact” rating, while biofuels and electric charging stations earn a lower-impact designation.

Although State Assemblymember Phil Ting is introducing a ban stating that all vehicles must be zero emissions by 2040, we would like to see a similar legislative move to introduce climate labels in Sacramento. With only a little more than half of Americans understanding that climate change is human-caused, labels will serve as educational tools that give the population the needed information to favor a clean, carbon-free transportation system in the coming decades.

Eco-labels might push producers of gasoline, biofuel, electricity and hydrogen fuel to be more sustainable. Electric vehicle charging stations, for example, can make the case for being a lower-carbon source as SB 100 moves California toward higher renewable power generation. For fossil fuel suppliers, the labels could spark a race toward less carbon-intense fuel products as a way to stand out from competitors.

The city of Berkeley has been at the forefront of pioneering this concept in the United States. In 2015, the Berkeley City Council was one of the first city councils in the United States to debate and approve a climate change labeling ordinance for gas pumps. The council cited its potential for long-term behavior change and complementing the city’s already existing programs to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from transportation. But before a final vote, the council passed legislation requiring that cell phone retailers post radiation labels informing customers of the health risk from electromagnetic radiation. This legislation, being a similar constitutional free speech issue as the eco-labels, slowed and ultimately halted a final vote by the Berkeley City Council. As a constitutional issue, then-city attorney Zach Cowan advised the council, and other cities that were following Berkeley’s lead, to wait on a final vote. He cautioned the need for the courts to set a legal precedent on the radiation label case as grounding before a final vote on climate labels. The case was remanded by the Supreme Court last year and awaits a reinterpretation by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit based on previous Supreme Court First Amendment judgments.

Some successful labeling examples include food industry nutrition labels, which have been in place on prepackaged foods in the United States since the 1990s and are considered a popular and cost-effective health intervention with unparalleled reach. Energy Star labels on appliances provide energy efficiency ratings and enjoy a high level of understanding and influence in the United States and internationally. Studies show that Energy Star-labeled refrigerators in Thailand rapidly captured an overwhelming slice of the consumer market, going from 12 percent market share to 96 percent share within a few years of the label’s introduction.

These examples remind us that reducing emissions in transportation isn’t merely a command-and-control measure. The application of these transformative policies will need to occur through consent by the public. In other words, it will be vehicle drivers themselves demanding, and ultimately adopting, the behavioral changes and the zero-carbon transport technologies of the future. These practices will be facilitated through a fundamental shift in consumer attitudes toward fossil fuels. In addition, these shifts in attitudes will support existing efforts to reduce emissions in transportation. The state’s cap-and-trade policy in future years will need ongoing political support to ensure that the price of carbon-intensive fuels inches ever closer to their true social cost.

With eco-labels, everyone starts seeing the climate impact of gas consumption at the pump. By illustrating these impacts, labels at the pump would help overcome the perception gap between decisions made now and their future effects on our climate. Simply, labels would counteract the lack of any visible danger when we consume conventional fuels. As a countermeasure to our tendency to feel impotent in a system where the responsibility for change falls on multiple actors, labels begin treating individual drivers as the change agents they actually are. California’s future clean transportation system will need to ensure that everyone is making the cleanest fuel consumption choices available.

Becoming aware of the carbon intensity of fuels creates a more immediate feeling of personal responsibility. This feeling will help to develop new social pressure on behavior. The success of bans on internal combustion engines and carbon pricing mechanisms is enhanced and secured when we utilize the power of changing social norms around fossil fuel consumption. Labels do not force anyone to act, per se, but instead, labels add a social mechanism to make the right choices where it is clear to each consumer that all other drivers are exposed to the same information. Eco-labels will help set the precedent for all California drivers to begin transitioning off of carbon-intensive fuels sooner, rather than 21 years from now.

 

Jamie Brooks is the advocacy director for Think Beyond the Pump/Our Horizon.