Zero carbon, or not zero carbon? That is the question.

A student made me aware of an interesting recent  judgement by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). The complainant had challenged that “ zero carbon solar power & water heating” was misleading and could not be substantiated. The issue arose around the definition of “zero carbon” and whether  that description could be applied to the technology for sale.

The interesting part to me was that  the ASA upheld the complaint and I was keen to see their justification. This is where it gets “fun.” The assessment published on their website (linked above) does not actually seem to support their decision very well.

They state:

‘…we noted that within the Defra research paper, dated February 2011 and entitled “Consumer understanding of green terms”, only 46% of respondents stated they were very familiar or familiar with the term zero carbon. We noted that the report commented that “If unsure, participants often interpreted terms in their most literal sense (e.g. ‘zero carbon’ was often translated in the group discussions as ’emits no carbon’).”‘

If unsure, “zero carbon” was taken to mean “emits no carbon.” This is actually how Solar Twin defined zero-carbon in their submitted material to the ASA, and the ASA noted this.

They continued:

‘We also noted the ad was for a solar panel supplier and considered that the availability of a product which produced zero carbon during its full life cycle was likely to be a factor that would effect a consumer’s transactional decision. Therefore in the context of the ad, we considered that consumers were likely to interpret the zero carbon claim to mean that no carbon was produced in the full life cycle of the advertised products.’

Here I think the key phrases  are “no carbon produced” and  “full life cycle.” Solar Twin provided evidence and the ASA noted it, that in fact although the products do contain embedded carbon from their manufacture, over a “full life cycle,” they effectively pay back the embedded carbon within their lifetime because they offset traditional fossil fuel derived energy (Actually, it could be argued that as they pay back the embedded carbon within their lifetime that the products are better than “zero carbon.”) One possible interpretation of this is that over the full life cycle of the products, no carbon is produced.

They conclude:

‘Since we understood that carbon was produced in the manufacturing process, we concluded that the zero carbon claim had not been substantiated and that the ad was likely to mislead consumers to their detriment.’

If I was marking this as a piece of students work I would have to say that their conclusion does not follow from their discussion! I can understand their concern, and it is important that consumers are not mislead about the possible benefits of domestic solar power, but I am not that impressed by the ASA grasp of the issues here.

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