Gas Pump 'Warming Labels' Could Galvanize Support for Decarbonization Policies

Cambridge, Massachusetts became the first U.S. jurisdiction to introduce “gas is bad” labels warning drivers of how fuel contributes to climate change.

petrol pump hands

THEGIFT777 / Getty Images

A new study argues that adding labels to gas pumps warning about the links between driving conventional cars and carbon emissions will help people realize that gas represents a “climate risk.”

To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, major economies need to decarbonize their transportation systems within the next decade. For that to happen, we need to make electric vehicles mainstream, ramp up public transportation, and choose biking and walking over driving cars. That’s especially the case in the U.S., where transportation is the sector that generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, with 29%.

James Brooks, author of the study and founder of the Hawaii-based organization Think Beyond the Pump, tells Treehugger these so-called “warming labels” could facilitate this transition because they will help build support for emissions-reductions policies.

Brooks notes that most carbon emissions attributed to the transportation sector don’t originate from oil wells or refining facilities but from the cars that people drive. The labels will target drivers, creating a sense of “guilt” that will prompt them to take “individual responsibility.” 

“Not that we don't need to put a warming label on an oil rig. That'd be great, I'd love to see someone do that, but by adding labels to gas pumps, consumers will be more aware of the climate change effects, because they control the emissions,” he says.

Brooks argues policymakers need to put in place more aggressive policies to fight climate change but labels could motivate drivers to play their part too.

“The idea with the labels is to create an intervention that will help close the knowledge-action gap because, in large part, transportation emissions will depend on consumers choosing lower carbon alternatives,” he adds.

He says that although most drivers should by now be aware their cars emit carbon dioxide. “What we found in the research is that a majority of people are underestimating the public health impacts from the combustion of fuels," says Brooks.

According to Drew Shindell, a Professor of Earth Science at Duke University, the fuels that power our cars come with a hidden price tag. Although U.S. gasoline prices are at around $3.2 per gallon, Shindell last year estimated the external costs—related to carbon emissions and air pollution — of burning gasoline at around $6.5 per gallon. 

Brooks says another aspect that many drivers underestimate is the fact that CO2 has a very long shelf life in the atmosphere.

“Our research found most people don't realize a little car trip down to pick up a pint of ice cream, puts decades worth of warming effect in the atmosphere. If not longer than that,” he says. 

In the past, similar labels have been used to promote seatbelts and to discourage people from smoking cigarettes. Brooks argues that now is the time to use labels and comprehensive social marketing campaigns to educate people about the link between gas and climate change.

The idea is to build a “sense of individual responsibility,” to make drivers aware that since they are part of the problem, they can also be part of the solution.

Nascent Initiatives

In late 2020, Cambridge, Massachusetts, became the first U.S. jurisdiction to introduce “gas is bad labels” at gas pumps.

The yellow labels read: “Burning Gasoline, Diesel, and Ethanol has major consequences on human health and on the environment including contributing to climate change.”

Cambridge gas pump sticker
@BeyondPump / Twitter

Cambridge is not alone. In October, gas stations across Sweden will start displaying labels that will warn drivers about the climate impact of the fuel they buy. Since 2016, fuel pumps in the Canadian city of North Vancouver have been displaying Smart Fuelling labels in collaboration with several fossil fuel companies.

Brooks says politicians in other municipalities in the state of Massachusetts also want to introduce warming labels at gas pumps.

Whether these labels will become widespread is unclear, in part because some local politicians fear that fossil fuel companies will take them to court if they push for these types of schemes, Brooks says.

In addition, conservative rural areas are unlikely to support gas pump labels, but major cities where climate change awareness is high, like Los Angeles or Atlanta, for instance, are likely targets to introduce warming labels. 

“It makes sense for large metropolitan areas in the United States to adopt labels because they have huge on-road transportation emissions and they likely have larger percentages of people concerned about climate change, who are more likely to be prompted into action,” Brooks says. 

View Article Sources
  1. Brooks, James R., and Kristie L. Ebi. "Climate Change Warning Labels on Gas Pumps: The Role of Public Opinion Formation in Climate Change Mitigation Policies." Global Challenges, 2021, doi:10.1002/gch2.202000086

  2. "Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions." Environmental Protection Agency.