In 2015 I wrote about a scheme in Canada to add warning labels to petrol pumps – gas pumps, for my American friends. The labels were inspired by the warning labels on cigarette packets, with wording that highlighted the climate impact of the fuel. It’s an interesting idea, connecting people’s ordinary actions with their global consequences, though for a while it didn’t look like it was going to get much further than certain regions of Canada.
That changed this year, when Cambridge, Massachusetts, voted to add warning to their fuel labels too, in support of the city’s Climate Action Plan. That makes them the first US city to try it.
A similar and more ambitious labelling plan is underway at the national level in Sweden. This time it’s information labels rather than warnings, showing the carbon impact of various fuels. It’s part of a campaign by the Swedish Association of Green Motorists. The overall project is called We Want to Know, which has demanded stickers showing the origins of fossil fuels too.
This was a problem for the oil companies, partly because the final product sold on the forecourts is mixed and basically untraceable, but also because it often comes from corrupt or unstable regimes and this would be embarassing. Still, it’s happening. After the Swedish government mandated the labels in 2018, they have been delayed slightly, but will appear in 2021. It’s a step in the right direction.
I like this campaign. For a start, there’s a big gap in the UK that’s crying out for a group like the Swedish Association of Green Motorists. Here, we tend to have environmental organisations on one side, and car lobby groups like the AA and the oil companies on the other. This pits drivers against any kind of environmental measures, and the media whips it up into ‘war on motorist’ narrative. All greener transport initiatives are politically difficult in Britain at the moment, even relatively innocent things like building bikes lanes.
An Association of Green Motorists is a halfway house. Yes, it’s not the active transport or public transport where true sustainability lies, but it can create a different kind of dialogue. It starts where people are, which is in their cars. It won’t get you all the way, but you can do a lot of good from there.
Secondly, information labels point towards the systemic problem rather than its consumer symptom. They highlight the oil company, not the consumer making the choice. Warning labels tell consumers off about their oil purchase, but for many people there really isn’t much of a choice to make because there are no alternatives. We’ve had sixty years of organising our geography around cars. If you can’t afford an electric car, you’re basically stuck with fossil fuels even if you know full well the damage they cause.
The solutions to car dependency don’t lie with consumer choice alone. Of course, millions of people could choose to walk or cycle and don’t, so drivers do share some responsibility. But much more responsibility lies with urban planners, and with the car and energy corporations and their shareholders that benefit from private motorised transport. Like plastics, the solution lies in producing less of the stuff in the first place, not just persuading people to shop for plastic-free alternatives.
Giving consumers information about the fuel they use is a very small measure in the grand scheme of things, but it tells us that it matters. The carbon content of the fuel matters. Where it comes from matters. By making this information public, you make it visible and it’s only at that point that anyone can try to improve it.
I’m not aware of anyone campaigning for fuel transparency in Britain, but it’s a good time to talk about it. The recent announcement that new petrol and diesel cars will be no longer be sold from 2030 acknowledges that we need to change our relationship to fossil fuels and the companies that provide them. We need to build support for alternatives, and break old habits. Little measures like labels at the pumps could help the conversation along.