The power to measure the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee

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IMAGINE A BUYER in the market for a new lawnmower who wants to do right for the planet by generating as few greenhouse gas emissions as possible.

Visit a few stores, spend some time Googling different products, and the one thing that quickly becomes clear is that . . . well, when it comes to climate impact, absolutely nothing is clear.

How much energy was used to produce the lawnmower? Where did that energy come from? How much waste did the production process generate, and what’s its impact? If it’s electric powered, how will the source of its electricity affect its carbon footprint? If it’s gas powered, what’s the mileage?


Almost every consumer good — food, clothes, cars — generates some amount of greenhouse gas emissions in its manufacture and usage, and it should be possible for consumers to make choices to reduce their carbon footprint and reward companies that reduce theirs.

Even watching a video on YouTube, or storing photos in the cloud, has some carbon impact, depending on how data centers generate the electricity they consume.

But good luck trying to sort it all out as a consumer. How is it possible that in 2019, Internet companies know or can readily deduce nearly everything about millions of individuals — what you eat, your political leanings, the last time you had sex — but can hardly tell those individuals anything about how the products they buy contribute to one of earth’s greatest challenges?

What’s needed is some kind of labeling system — maybe not a literal label next to the calorie counts on food wrappers, but a universal system for estimating and reporting the climate impact of consumer goods and services.

That is not to say that individuals making altruistic decisions are going to save the planet. They won’t — not any more than country-of-origin labels led consumers to save American manufacturing, or that mileage labels have pushed motorists out of SUVs. Ultimately it’s laws (and prices) that will change behavior enough to address climate change. But some studies show that providing upfront climate information to consumers can affect decision-making, and more transparency could also raise awareness, identify bad actors and outliers, and, perhaps, form part of the basis for a future carbon pricing system.


This isn’t a new idea, and you can find various calculators and estimators online that try to provide that data now. Many are focused on travel, though, not consumer goods, or report data only for broad categories (“coffee,” for instance, rather than something more specific a buyer could check while walking down a store aisle, like “Starbucks Pike Place Whole Bean Coffee 12-ounce bag”). Some companies also report their own carbon impact.

Part of the problem consumers have encountered is that measuring the carbon footprint of anything can turn into an incredibly slippery, subjective task: If a farmer cuts down trees to plant corn, should that be factored into the carbon footprint of the high-fructose corn syrup in a Coke? There are also disagreements, even among scientists, over how to translate other greenhouse gases into carbon dioxide equivalents, and over what time period.

It also gets bogged down in uncertainties that make the calculation inherently more uncertain than, say, the weight of a product. What’s the carbon footprint of a lobster? And how is the fisherman supposed to label it, not knowing whether any particular lobster will end up being eaten one town over, or shipped in a fuel-guzzling plane to China?


That’s not the only location-based variable a labeling system would need to recognize. Take TVs. There’s a carbon impact in producing them. But once you plug one in, the environmental impact differs depending on where your electricity comes from. If you watch TV in Quebec, powered almost solely by hydropower, the impact is different than in West Virginia, where electricity comes overwhelmingly from coal.

So rather than a specific number on a package, a better solution might be a QR code that lets users figure out the climate impact of buying and using a product, tailored to the user’s location, calculated seamlessly with a smartphone app.

That sounds like an enormous amount of work.

Now, who has the experience with software and Big Data, clout within the business community, an environmentally committed workforce, and an understanding of logistics to pull it all off? What if there were a large company or companies that informed sellers that to stay on their platform they’d need to cooperate with a labeling system by providing accurate information about their carbon footprint — and has the monopolistic power to get away with that kind of demand?

You can probably see where this is going.

The fact that Amazon and Google — and to a lesser extent Facebook and Apple — enjoy monopolies represents a failure of regulation. Still, the tech giants may as well use the power they have for good. There’s nobody in America better equipped to give Americans apples-to-apples information about the carbon impact of their consumer choices, and to pull the rest of the business community along. Their own employees are pushing them to take stronger climate action, and force-feeding carbon transparency into the consumer marketplace would be a great way to respond.


Yes, there are complications and caveats that any consumer would have to consider. If socks produce 10 percent more greenhouse gas emissions to make — but last twice as long — they’re probably still a better choice. And the numbers should always be presented in context: A single airline flight wipes out a lot of virtuous climate choices in a single stroke.

But information is powerful, and unleashing it creates possibilities that aren’t always immediately foreseeable. The work that Google did to map the entire country, for instance, later allowed Uber to disrupt an entire industry. Bringing greater precision to consumer carbon accounting might have benefits that aren’t obvious now.

So to Silicon Valley: Please, sic your algorithms on products with the same gusto as you’ve unleashed them on humans. Extract information about companies’ manufacturing processes using the same market power you’ve use to wheedle personal information out of your users. Let consumers know as much about a can of cat food or a box of Kleenex as the companies that advertise those products know about consumers.

Step up to give Americans the tools to make fully climate-informed choices when they use your sites and in the broader marketplace, and then watch what happens.