Net-zero Notebook: Banks, bullshit and burgers

This month’s roundup is provocative, probing and just a little bit plant-based. By David Burrows. 

This month it’s impossible not to start with HSBC – now the ‘world’s lunatic bank’ – and its head of responsible investment. Stuart Kirk’s comments at an FT event in May need little introduction given the column inches they’ve generated. He talked of there always being “some nut job telling me about the end of the world” and not caring if Miami is six metres under water in 100 years because “we will cope with it”. 

Among his points, the FT reported, was that market performance in recent years had shown no significant response to warning of climate impacts and that the long-term risk on global economic growth and stock markets isn’t as high as some investors are led to believe – so we shouldn’t spend so much time focusing on it. He doesn’t deny climate change but wonders if the risks are over-hyped.

There is certainly uncertainty in the predictions made by the likes of the IPCC. As Morningstar global director of sustainability research Hortense Bioy pointed out in her balanced appraisal of the saga, there is need for hope in the doomsday scenarios. “But Kirk takes this argument too far,” she writes. “Climate uncertainty is no excuse for inaction and complacency.”

No fan of bullshit

The unprintable social media reactions of campaigners/most people to Kirk’s presentation brings us to a new opinion paper: ‘Bullshit in the sustainability and transactions literature: a provocation’. Writing in the journal Circular economy and sustainability, Julian Kirchherr claims “50% of peer-reviewed works in the sustainability and transitions literature may be categorised as ‘scholarly bullshit’”. 

If that percentage has pushed him into delivering such a rant, he’s fortunate to be sifting through journal papers rather than press releases. 

Kirchherr says researchers should think before they ink: “Is this me now merely adding to the pile of scholarly bullshit? Or am I contributing to the advancement of knowledge in my field?” (Advice duly noted by The Notebook)He ends by criticising his own work, citing one paper that is a treatise on 114 definitions of ‘circular economy’ that proposes a 115th.

Carbon coherence

The stream of new eco-labelling schemes continues to flow, with IGD the latest to the party. Defra, Wrap and consultancy Anthesis have all been involved in developing a label that will be tested by four supermarkets in a virtual reality setting. IGD wants a harmonised scheme but the more schemes that pile into this space the less harmony there is likely to be. The impacts of the labels could also be diluted. 

A survey of 2,000 people by Upfield’s vegan brand Violife has found that 66% want carbon footprints on their foods while 33% don’t understand the link between food production and greenhouse gases. “I do not think there has been any effective labelling; we do not have any,” Tim Lang, professor emeritus of food policy at City, University of London, told peers recently in a House of Lords session on the role of behaviour change in meeting UK environmental targets. “That is why it is critical that your committee comes up with a call for government to be coherent about it.”

Lang, who is involved with the OmniAction labelling scheme aimed at the eating-out restaurant sector, would like to see “sustainable dietary scores on the doors” so customers can see whether restaurants are reducing their carbon footprints, their waste and so forth. “Lots of private consultancies are exploring these things,” he explained, “but it needs to be done now at scale”. 


Scale should mean a greater shift as supply chains modify in order to avoid poor scores or ‘red’ labels. Whether these schemes are enough to disrupt diner choices is less clear. Research just published by the Julius-Maximilians-Universität of Würzburg in Germany is encouraging however.

The study involved 295 volunteers being presented with menus from different restaurants online, some with coloured carbon labels and others where the default option was changed to the least carbon-intensive dish. The coloured CO2 labels resulted in meal choices that had 200g less CO2e, while the so-called ‘default shifts’ led to an average of 300gCO2e less per dish ordered.

“If a restaurant highlights the vegetable patty instead of the meat patty as a standard option in its burger menu, it communicates: 'Guests at this restaurant usually order the veggie burger.' In psychology, we call this a descriptive norm," explained researcher Benedikt Seger. “This presumed knowledge of what others do in a certain situation – regardless of whether it is desired or accepted – can have a significant influence on behaviour.” 

In foodservice it seems choice editing is among the most powerful levers for changing food consumption patterns but carbon labels may help nudge people too. Seger's message to restaurant operators is: "Have the courage to include CO2 labels and different standard options in your menu. This way you can contribute to climate protection without having to change your offer fundamentally."

Stuck on scope 3

The impact of ecolabels is a hot debate but crunching the data to get there can leave some in a cold sweat. Wrap is among those trying to help food companies understand their scope 3 emissions. A new set of protocols on these emissions – which account for 80% or more of most food companies’ footprints – has been published. 

Food businesses have been “stuck” on scope 3, Wrap said, so its new guidelines provide a consistent way of quantifying supply chain emissions, and the confidence of a uniform way of comparing products and value chains”. That’s not quite the case because companies won’t have to publicly report these

The process is not about overburdening firms with red tape, the charity’s CEO Marcus Gover told The Grocer, but one thing is for sure, he added, industry is “ahead of government” on this issue. A case in point may, for example, be PPN 06/21 which requires suppliers bidding for government contracts to submit a carbon reduction plan covering rather limited scope 3 emissions.

Vegan farming

Getting to grips with scope 3 means engaging with suppliers. ‘Carbon farming’ seems to be a term gaining popularity, in part thanks to the EU’s carbon farming initiative which encourages production and techniques that absorb carbon.

According to the IPCC there could be somewhere between 5 and 16 gigatonnes of CO2 to sequester, store and extract. How much can be done in soils, hedges and on-farm trees is a muddy debate currently. 

Green Alliance, a think tank, has had a stab at a review, concluding that “farmers should be wary of selling carbon offset credits to buyers upfront as this could harm their own decarbonisation efforts. It is likely to be more beneficial for them to work together with food businesses to reduce emissions and sequester carbon within the supply chain. This will require new standards that guarantee the permanence and accurate measurement of carbon stored.”

In a separate report, Green Alliance has warned that decarbonising agriculture and food is likely to have a negative effect on the UK’s productivity. The process of reducing emissions from agriculture or switching to lower carbon food sources would require government action to minimise the costs, the think tank noted in its ‘Climate for growth’ paper.

There could also be opportunities for new businesses, health improvements from dietary change and greater biodiversity. Plant-based meat also has “higher productivity than animal-based, with lower inputs per calorie”, the authors wrote.

Easy on the insects

Which brings us, finally, to a paper in Nature Food, reported by Anthropocene, which showed that powdered crickets, seaweed and cultured meats are all well and good but reducing meat a bit might be a simpler path to sustainable eating. As the piece concludes, “dietary change doesn’t need to be extreme to achieve something real”. 

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