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Labelling is a popular choice as a way to control fossil fuel advertising – new study

The UN secretary-general António Guterres recently called for a ban on fossil fuel adverts. However, industry bodies insist bans are ineffective and that advertising has a positive role to play in driving people towards new, low-carbon products such as electric vehicles.

Climate change is as least as big a public health threat as smoking – and tobacco marketing was completely banned in the UK in 2003.

I study public attitudes to climate policy. My colleagues and I have been investigating what the public thinks about advertising of high-carbon products and services such as petrol and diesel cars or air travel. Our results are surprising.

First, we asked a diverse group of 25 people what, if anything, should change about how high-carbon ads are managed. We provided them with evidence and expertise to help them understand the issue, then gave them time to develop ideas for reform. Though a ban was not their top priority, they were clearly not happy with the status quo either.

The group’s preferred option was for a traffic light labelling system. Adverts for any product or service related to areas such as transport and energy use – as well as diets and carbon-intensive food production – would have to carry a clear red, amber or green label indicating the level of climate impact. This labelling system also came out top in polling of 2,000 people around Britain. Most (69%) of those polled supported labelling, with 44% strongly supporting it.

Designing a labelling system

The issue of allocating labels throws up the same challenge as a ban – where do you set the bar? Peter Dietsch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Victoria, has suggested using a simple threshold of carbon intensity.

Another way would be to index the system to the pathways to net zero mapped by the UK’s climate advisers. This modelling shows we need to eliminate sales of petrol and diesel cars entirely – okay, they get a red label. They also show we need to reduce car miles in absolute terms, so maybe electric vehicles only merit an amber, not a green? It’s complicated.

In terms of regulating a labelling system, our research shows that people want this to be done by an organisation that’s totally independent of industry. This differs to the current system. Although the advertising regulator itself is independent, it implements rules largely written by the industry, and it’s funded by industry contributions.

Would labelling work to change people’s consumption habits? The evidence suggests caution. Providing people with more information alone rarely changes behaviours, given the influence of factors such as cost, convenience and social norms. Studies of efforts to regulate advertising of tobacco products and unhealthy foods suggests that comprehensive bans are the most effective.

Our participants didn’t envisage the labelling working in isolation though. They expected this measure to work well alongside wider policy changes such as investment in electric vehicle charging stations to make low carbon consumption more affordable and convenient. They also wanted to see advert labelling form part of a wider climate public engagement strategy, aimed at improving awareness and understanding. Adding labels to adverts could help to shift social norms around behaviours such as flying and car travel.

The second most popular proposal from our research could compliment the labelling scheme. Both the small group and those polled supported a levy on adverts for high-carbon products and services. Companies would have to pay more for adverts with red labels – potentially driving them to innovate or phase out high carbon lines. Labelling could therefore form part of a wider package of new advertising regulations. Although our small group chose not to include advertising bans in their package, close to a majority of those polled said they would support advertising bans (47%).

Concern about the climate crisis is high, and this is reflected by our research. The overwhelming message from our participants was that the current system for managing high carbon adverts doesn’t go far enough. There is a clear desire for change.

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