Climate Solutions

Checking in on the climate as you check out

A major supermarket chain in Denmark lets customers know the carbon footprint of their groceries
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COPENHAGEN - A major supermarket chain in Denmark is offering shoppers something extra at checkout: an estimated amount of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from their groceries.

COOP DK, the Danish cooperative that controls one-third of the country’s grocery market, says it is trying to educate consumers with an eye toward nudging them to cut back on meat and dairy, two categories of food that produce the most greenhouse gasses linked to climate change.

At stores run by COOP DK’s five grocery chains — Irma, Fakta, Kvickly, SuperBrugsen and Dagli’Brugsen — shoppers can use an app that gives them a personalized carbon footprint tracker that displays roughly how much CO2 it took to produce the tomatoes, yogurt or cold cuts in their baskets. The tracker, which rolled out in June, also allows customers to compare their footprint to the average shopper.

“What people need to understand is just that animal-based products have a higher [climate] impact,” said Thomas Roland, who leads corporate social responsibility for COOK DK. “And that there’s a big difference between choosing red meat and choosing poultry.”

Animal agriculture is a major source of both carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gasses that are driving the rapid warming of the planet, scientists say.

Roland and his team spent a year developing the tool. Since the stores stock more than 100,000 items, they took a few shortcuts by selecting a benchmark item — 2.2 pounds of white rice, for example — to be representative of all types of rice because, as Roland explained, the variations in rice production, transportation and packaging are relatively small. Similarly, all pork is counted in the same way, regardless of farming methods.

“It’s not a tool where you can go to the meat counter and say, ‘Is this lamb chop better than that lamb chop?’ ” Roland said. “What you can see is that lamb has had a substantial impact on your overall basket.”

So far, 21 percent of the chain’s 1.2 million app users have checked their carbon footprint, Roland said.

A cashier hands a receipt to a customer at an Irma store in Denmark. (Sine Fiig/COOP DK)

Rikke Nissen is among them. She said she already eats mostly vegetables and little meat, but using the app has heightened her awareness. “You get a wake-up call sometimes and find out, ‘Oh, I didn’t do that quite well [enough], like buying wine or sandwich meat,” said Nissen, who was shopping recently at the Super Brugsen in Copenhagen.

When they first discussed the idea of a carbon tracker, top executives at COOP DK were concerned that it could affect the chain’s bottom line.

“But when you are a retailer, you are in the lucky position that people still need to eat, and we can also profit on the products they might buy as substitutes for categories with high footprint,” Roland said. “Our biggest concern was that we ‘chased’ some customers out of our shops only to find that they buy all their meat at competitors. But that, luckily, doesn’t seem to be the case. Curiosity wins, as customers actually want to see the footprint of their total basket and not ‘cheat.’ ”

The average Dane is responsible through his or her food choices for the emission of about 6,614 pounds of CO2, or 18.1 pounds a day, according to COOP DK.

That’s almost six times the amount recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health. The commission’s 2019 peer-reviewed study by 37 scientists found that a person’s nutritional CO2 footprint should be closer to 3.1 pounds per day, if humanity is to prevent the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. That’s the threshold beyond which, scientists say, irreversible climate catastrophes will be triggered. The EAT-Lancet commission’s recommendations are in line with the goals set by the 2016 Paris climate accord.

In Denmark, it is increasingly hard to miss the message that a low-carbon diet is important for the climate.

Barnemad, a cooking site that displays the CO2 equivalence of a recipe’s ingredients, is among a growing number of “climate cookbooks” that are part of a Danish trend to promote low-carbon eating, organic foods and nutrition.

“Everyone now in Denmark knows almost intuitively what to eat if they want to eat a healthy diet because we’ve been taught that for the past 20 years through commercials from the government,” said Barnemad co-founder Malte Gaarde, who also provides recipes for Klima Kassen, a low-carbon weekly meal-subscription kit. “Basically, the idea was to do the same but for climate impact.”

Leading meat and dairy suppliers are cautiously welcoming the footprint tracker, although it could result in a decrease in sales.

Hanne Sondergaard, the chief marketing officer of Arla Foods, the largest dairy producer in Scandinavia, said her company welcomed the transparency and the opportunity for “helping consumers to make good choices. My expectation would be that more and more [retailers] will pick this up across the whole of Europe, and maybe also outside.”

It’s not a tool where you can go to the meat counter and say, ‘Is this lamb chop better than that lamb chop?’ What you can see is that lamb has had a substantial impact on your overall basket.
Thomas Roland, who leads corporate social responsibility for COOK DK

The pork producer Danish Crown doesn’t oppose climate footprint trackers, its top executive said. “It’s early days for these tools,” said Jais Valeur, CEO of Danish Crown, which also exports meat to China, Japan and Britain. “But still, it’s a sign of what’s going to come here on the climate path, and we need to pay attention to this. It’s not like we’re against it. Meat has become so cheap here in Europe and in the Western world, and there you see an overconsumption. I think you need to educate people, you need to inform people, and you need to be transparent.”

Both Arla and Danish Crown are trying to reduce their carbon emissions and position their products as low-carbon.

Arla is aiming to shrink its CO2 footprint by 30 percent by 2030. And Danish Crown says it will halve CO2 emissions from the 12.5 million pigs it raises and slaughters in Denmark by 2030. The company is setting up baselines and individual climate plans for each of its pig farmers.

“You have to be working with climate neutrality and sustainability to have a good position in Danish society among consumers, and among politicians,” said Anne Lawaetz Arhnung of the Danish Agriculture & Food Council, a trade group that has declared that all Danish farming will be carbon neutral by 2050. “It’s simply standard here in Denmark.”

Farmers, for the most part, are embracing the opportunity to lower their carbon footprint, although, as Valeur notes, there are no financial incentives.

“At present, there’s nothing in this for the farmers. We’ve not been out promising that they’ll get extra pay for being climate-friendly, because to be honest, we still don’t have the market for doing that,” Valeur said. “But I’d say, over the next couple years, I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t start seeing price differentiation based on climate impact.”

Kim Kjær Knudsen is a third-generation pig farmer who is trying to cut carbon emissions from his farm of 100,000 pigs outside Copenhagen. He has invested in biogas projects, reduced the acidity of his slurry, installed new ventilation systems and is buying more local feed.

“I think this will define my future in the next 10 to 15 years,” Knudsen said. “It’s important to make some steps now that will move us in a good direction.”

And, Knudsen said, it may help him sell more pork “if I can put a calculation on my meat to say, ‘Actually, we can produce meat here in Denmark that is 50 to 80 percent better for the environment than they can do somewhere else in the world.’ ”

Though changes to farming practices are welcome, Roland cautions that substituting low-carbon meat for regular meat will not be enough to a achieve the goal of preventing the planet from warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels.

“It has to come from our consumers making choices for more plant-based products and less animal-based products,” Roland said.

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