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NET-ZERO NOTEBOOK: Be careful what you say about carbon

This month’s offer is full of carbon negatives, numbers and nuance. David Burrows reports. 

This is the ‘net-zero’ notebook, so let’s start with some stats on net-zero. From mid-January to mid-February the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) used AI (of course it did) to monitor 300,000 online adverts across 200 brands in nine sectors, including food. Of those, 150 (0.05%) featured ‘net-zero’ claims, and most were in the energy and finance sectors. Just eight (0.003%) featured the claim ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘carbon neutrality’. We’d love to know who did.

Some companies have found themselves in hot water over such claims. The EU has plans to ban them, while in the UK the idea seems to be petering out following a series of scandals relating to the offsets involved. But in other parts of the world carbon neutral remains hot – which has enraged an academic from the University of Southampton.

“Imagine a house is on fire, and someone is actively pouring gas on the fire,” wrote Caspar Donnison in a piece for The Conversation. “They then pour a little less gas and want credit for doing so, despite still feeding the fire. Perhaps they claim they are now ‘fire neutral’. We’d rightly be very sceptical of such claims. Yet that is more or less what some influential supporters of the livestock industry have done.”

Donnison recently unpicked some of the claims being made by the livestock sector in a paper for the journal Environmental Research Letters. They turned out to be too good to be true, according to his analysis, not least thanks to the “ambiguous term” of carbon neutrality having “opened the door to the exploitation of perceived inconsistencies between temperature stabilisation and achieving net-zero emissions”. 

As his paper, with German-based agricultural scientist Donal Murphy-Bokern, notes: “[…] scientists are trained to use language precisely.” In a follow-up, Donnison told me: “As the reality of the challenge of greenhouse gas mitigation becomes apparent, there is an incentive for some to present a more biased picture of what is actually happening in their sector, and […] that involves the distorted use of language.”

Negative response

Which brings us to the new term on the block: ‘carbon negative’. Food, drink, cosmetics and furniture brands have all started throwing it about. Definitions are, as usual, problematic but if a carbon neutral product removes as many emissions as it emits, a carbon negative product is one that should remove more carbon than is released. 

This generally means using offsets. Or insets. Or removals. You see: it all gets rather confusing.

Removals we want to come back to in more detail another time. Carbon insets are not quite as controversial as offsets, given that they relate to carbon that’s sequestered within a company’s own supply chain. 

So, Gyspy Hill Brewery for example claims that its Swell and Trail beers “finish with a CO2e footprint of -30g and -40g per pint respectively, compared to standard pints which are more than 350g per pint”. The barley production is key: grown by Wildfarmed, it “sequesters more CO2 than it produces” thanks to “bio-diverse, poly cropped, regenerative farming techniques”.

Those with an interest in packaging will want to note that popping the beers in aluminium cans pushes the footprint past zero (0.24kgCO2e/l and 0.25kgCO2e/l for 330ml cans of Trail and Swell respectively). The data are available on its website (tick for transparency). Two Drifters carbon negative rum also comes with a stack of information to back up the claims it’s making. Whether it will be enough to satisfy the likes of the ASA remains to be seen.

Watt’s bolt

Brewdog was recently left with its tail between its legs after the authority ruled that its carbon negative adverts were misleading, stating: “Because there was no qualifying information in the ad which outlined the basis for Brewdog’s ‘carbon negative claim, we concluded that the ad was misleading.” Brewdog’s CEO James Watt wasn’t happy about it.

“The ASA doesn’t have a problem with us claiming our beers are carbon negative,” he wrote on social media. “The substantiation we provide meets the ASA’s criteria. And we are also fully independently certified as carbon negative. So, what’s the crime? In one Instagram post we relied on a slightly shorter explanation [of the claims] plus the URL. Two people complained and the ASA upheld the complaint. That’s it.”

It’s the term ‘carbon negative’ that makes me uncomfortable. Text on the other half of one Brewdog poster stated “BEER FOR YOUR GRANDCHILDREN”, alongside an image of Brewdog Punk IPA Lager, and a badge with the text “Positive Planet CERTIFIED CARBON NEGATIVE COMPANY”. So, the more you drink the better things will be? Alcohol can do funny things to people, but surely that’s not a responsible message, is it?

Nuts about dough 

Wildfarmed seems to be very popular with food brands currently. The company sources from just over 100 farms that adhere to its regenerative standards, which for example help to “remove carbon and pesticides, minimise river pollution, increase biodiversity and prioritise farmer welfare”. Restaurant chain Ask Italian this month launched a new pizza dough using Wildfarmed flour, which reduces the carbon intensity of the dough by 50%, according to calculations by Foodsteps, a carbon accounting firm. 

Dough is among the top five ingredients that directly contribute to Ask’s food emissions. Zizzi is also using the flour in a pasta dish that scored ‘very low’ on Foodsteps’ carbon rating scheme. Azzurri wants 65% of its menus across brands including Ask Italian, Zizzi and Coco Di Mama to consist of low or very low carbon options by the end of the decade.

Interest in shifting menus to ‘low carbon’ options is rising. A survey published last month by catering firm Sodexo – which has a target for 70% of its main meals to be low carbon by 2030 – revealed that 36% of consumers expect restaurants and food-to-go outlets to provide carbon labelling and offer low-carbon options. 

Defining what constitutes ‘low carbon’ is tricky, however. Companies have been left to come up with their own scales, often with the help of carbon accounting experts and specialist NGOs.

The other issue here is that this can send us down a carbon tunnel. That plays into the hands, generally, of more intensive production systems, rather than the regenerative approach the big players seem to be publicly backing. ”Carbon obviously is important,” said Lee Truelove from First Milk at a recent Footprint Forum on regenerative agriculture, “but I think regenerative farming is about delivering net good across carbon, biodiversity, water, social and animal welfare, rather than simply being less bad.”

Milking it

Research just published by Dutch bank ING across 30 of the world’s major dairy companies shows two-thirds have a target for their scope 3 emissions. Most are unfortunately intensity targets which can create tension with national targets to reduce absolute emissions. New Zealand seems to be the most efficient currently, with 0.74kgCO2e emitted per kilo of milk produced. In the US it’s 0.96kgCO2e, while in France it’s 1.26kgCO2e.

The UK isn’t included in the paper. A three-year footprinting programme run by AHDB around a decade ago produced a figure of around 1.25kgCO2e – and that appears to be the figure used today. 

ING economist, and author of the dairy report Thijs Geijer, suggests that the corporate customers of dairy companies will be looking for milk produced within the 0.6kgCO2e to 0.8kgCO2e range come 2030. Dairy companies that match that will have a competitive advantage but it means acting on those targets, he wrote.

Brave, but the heart’s not in it

Which brings us finally to Scotland and its pledge to cut its climate emissions by 75% by 2030. Unfortunately this is “no longer credible” and cannot be met, according to the UK Climate Change Committee. “Scotland has laudable ambitions to decarbonise, but it isn’t enough to set a target; the government must act,” said interim chair of the committee professor Piers Forster. 

Scotland has certainly been great at setting green targets but too often left red-faced when the deadlines come knocking. Can you be a ‘leader’ by setting targets? The reputational benefits of having “world” or “industry leading” targets seem to far outweigh the consequences of missing them, noted one expert on social media. Some food corporates (and their marketing teams) know this only too well.