activism climate change energy

Warning: this product causes climate change

Until very recently, Canada’s record on climate change was pretty shameful, compromised by the siren call of the tar sands. That’s changed rapidly with the election of Justin Trudeau, and Canada surprised the climate talks by coming out in favour of a 1.5 degrees warming target this week. Behind the scenes though, Canada’s regions and cities have been much more progressive, and Vancouver recently came up with a global first – warning labels on gas stations.

Nozzle warnings

When you fill up your car in North Vancouver, you’ll see a sticker warning you about the consequences of oil use. It’s inspired by cigarette packaging, but with a positive twist – you’ll also get tips for what you could be doing differently.

It’s the brainchild of Robert Shirkey, Toronto based lawyer and founder of Canadian non-profit Our Horizon. He hopes the warning labels will become commonplace, “a low-cost, globally-scalable intervention to communicate the hidden costs of fossil fuels to end users and drive change upstream.”

Several municipalities in Canada and the US have passed resolutions in support of the labels, but North Vancouver got their first in making them a legal requirement.

Like warnings on cigarette packaging, there’s no guarantee that this idea will work. The conclusion on tobacco seems to be that labels increase awareness of the health consequences of smoking, especially when they are adopted in developing countries where people might not have known so much about the connections. They may deter new smokers from starting. They appear to be less good at changing smokers’ behaviour. People learn to ignore them, or they just feel worse about smoking but aren’t any more motivated to quit.

Smoking and climate change are very different problems, so the parallels are far from direct. I suspect some of these same observations would apply. People don’t like being told off, and accusing labels might just make drivers defensive. It may reinforce the idea that climate change is something we should feel guilty about, which isn’t particularly helpful in empowering lifestyle change.

But that’s no reason not to try it, especially if there is a more positive message to the warning too. Bringing CO2 home, making it real to us in our everyday lives, is vital. It may break the silence and connect up local action and global consequences. Climate change can seem so far away and disconnected from us, too easy to ignore. “The first step in addressing any problem is to honestly face it” say Our Horizon, and these labels locate the cause of climate change right there in your hand as you fill your tank.

I don’t suppose it’ll be an easy campaign. Consumers won’t like it. Oil companies won’t like it. That space is currently occupied by advertising, so there will be a cost involved despite the labels being very cheap to produce. But those aren’t reasons not to try it either, and we’ll have to see how it goes in Vancouver.


  1. the production of labels creates co2. although canadian politicians are getting much praise they have actually done nothing towards co2 reduction. canada’s electricity comes mostly from hydro which is allowing some premiers and mayors to claim green strategies. the problem we have here is with oil and gas production. although some provinces , alberta and bc for instance are putting restrictions on co2 they are planning to increase production of oil and gas. people need to learn how to interpret the garbage that spews from the mouths of politicians. with the co2 already in the atmosphere the warming will reach 1.5. how do you think they are going to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees with plans to continue emitting co2 till 2050 at least?

    1. Yes, and nobody’s suggesting that this is the final Big Solution we’ve all been waiting for. It’s going to take thousands of different ideas, at all scales, to make any different. This is a little one, and those have their place.

      1. thousands of little ideas like labels will only produce more co2. we need to fix the problem. i.e. this planet does not have the resources to support private cars for the 10 billion people projected in the next few years.

        1. Pumps already have ads on them. Putting these labels on instead of encouragements to consume more will not produce more CO2. It’s completely negligible as an objection.

          And I didn’t say thousands of little ideas. I said thousands of ideas, at all scales. Some will be small, like this one. Others will be large. I completely agree that private cars for 10 billion people is not sustainable, and it won’t be solved by lots of little ideas. But neither should we dismiss small ideas that may make a contribution in changing our car culture.

  2. A great initiative. I wish we had this here in Australia. There will no doubt be many shallow objections to this, in a similar way to how the tobacco lobby deceived and obfuscated in order to maintain sales. Unsurprisingly, the pro-fossil fuel lobby now employs some of the same people who repeatedly tried to tell us there was no causal link between smoking and cancer.

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