The common answer to the question, “What is a carbon footprint?” is “Well, it depends”. While the phrase carbon footprint has blasted its way into the 21st century lexicon, consistent definitions and interpretations have been harder to find.

While stabilising and harmonising terminology and definitions will take time, it is important not to lose sight of the point of the concept in the first place. When Best Foot Forward produced the first ever footprint calculator in 1996, the point was to communicate to an average person how much of the planets resources they were using and how they might reduce that consumption to a sustainable level. Even though the units were expressed as eco-calories and the user was encouraged to go on a eco-calorie controlled diet, the logic and calculations behind the calculator were not dissimilar to those that we use today.

Now that climate change is irrefutable, society has been searching for greenhouse gas metrics that are applicable throughout the economy. It is a challenge to find a metric that resonates both with business leaders and Mabel on the No 19 bus but the carbon footprint phrase appears to have achieved this – even if consensus on, “What is a carbon footprint?” is hard to find.

But definitions are only a means to an end; the end being able to measure and manage our contribution to climate change. Whether as an individual, a business, a public sector body or a policy maker, we are all on a steep learning curve on what needs to be done to bring our contribution to climate change to a sustainable level.

And what is a sustainable level? Sustainability is a notoriously difficult concept to operationalise. There are two key approaches that have come to the fore in the last decade that have helped to clarify the concept with regard to carbon. First is the understanding that sustainability involves limits; that in order to bring climate change under control there is a certain amount of greenhouse gases that we can emit and emitting any more than that will lead to disaster. This has been manifested in the recently revised government target of 80% cuts on 1990 levels by 2050. Once a target is defined, budgets and trajectories can be devised and we can start working out the practical implications of how we get to our goal.

Second is the recognition that a tonne of carbon emitted in Pennsylvania is the same as one emitted in Birmingham or Beijing. Carbon emissions are a function of consumption not just of production. If we move our carbon intensive industries

to another part of the world and import our finished goods from those countries, the associated carbon emissions may not show up on our national account, but

they have occurred and are attributable to the consumption of that product. This

life-cycle or whole-life cost approach is essential if we are not simply to shift the burden of consumption around the world. Looking at the situation from a consumption rather than a production point of view also makes it easier to link the personal to the global. All we need now is an understanding of the nature and scale of carbon emissions from different types of activity. Enter: the carbon footprint.

But what is a carbon footprint?

Should it be broad or should it be narrow? Should it be for internal consumption or external? Should it look at the business or should it look at products? If we are to have a coherent and internally consistent approach to carbon reduction, a coherent and consistent set of rules and definitions would be helpful – but we’re not there yet.

What used to be known as a greenhouse gas inventory for a business was well defined by the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Protocol until it became more loosely referred to as a business carbon footprint. A consistently applied personal ecological footprint has been moved aside by a plethora of personal carbon footprint possibilities.

Reliable conversion factors is another area for confusion and debate. For example, are we talking about kilograms of greenhouse gas equivalents per kilowatt hour of electricity or carbon dioxide? Are we talking about emissions from a kilogram of aluminium made in Australia or Norway? When Best Foot Forward started greenhouse gas accounting in 1996, finding any reliable conversion factor was challenging. Now there are many more data sets and studies and one of the challenges is choosing the most appropriate conversion factor to use. Even between recognised datasets, there is still not complete harmonisation – Defra’s Company Reporting Guidance requires a different set of conversion factors from those required by the Defra-sponsored PAS 2050. The accounting rules underpinning the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, Climate Change Agreements and the upcoming Carbon Reduction Commitment are complex and not entirely consistent. Carbon, carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas equivalents are all different units but are often used interchangeably – although they will give very different results in any calculations.

Another lesser understood area is how different accounting rules can affect footprint results. One issue is how waste, materials reuse and recycling is accounted – and even the recent PAS 2050 consultation failed to resolve this. Another particularly controversial issue at the moment are the rules for accounting for green tariff renewable energy, where any purchased renewable electricity gain is accounted using the average grid carbon intensity meaning. This has put some businesses which pioneered the uptake of green tariffs in the awkward position of having nothing to show for their efforts.

But for all the confusion, we are moving in the right direction most of the time and it is important not to lose sight of what we are trying to do. There will be many different approaches to footprinting depending on the question being asked: “How can the economy have a smaller footprint? How can this business have a smaller footprint? How can I have a smaller footprint?”

Footprinting with a purpose
Surely the point of footprinting is working out how to make a difference. In the early days of carbon offsetting, offset companies would provide footprint calculations for free – if a business isn’t interested in seeking out reduction opportunities and is only interested in buying indulgences. If, on the other hand, the business is interested in getting costs of carbon off rather than on the balance sheet, a deeper level of diagnosis is required. Where are the hot spots? What can we do about them? If we don’t directly control them, how can we influence them? What is the most economically efficient way of saving them? On another level, a good product designer will want to design the lowest-carbon version of a product possible – taking into account the materials that are used, how the product is made and how it performs in use.

Well run businesses have robust systems for financial control. Often elaborate data capture and management systems will be able to identify key cost centres, model changes in suppliers and any impact on revenues. Not yet so with greenhouse gas emissions – partly because the costs of emitting them is only starting to impact noticeably on the bottom line. Even the most sophisticated companies are struggling with data and data management.

At Best Foot Forward, as a matter of principle, we do not collect data for our clients. While we are very happy to specify what data is needed and advise where it might be possible to find it, we have found over the years that a significant part of the benefit of going through the footprint process is in finding and understanding the data. Cries of: “He took how many flights?” or “How can we possibly produce that much waste?” are surprisingly common. The process of not being able to find the data can be even more enlightening.

Understanding the results as well as the underlying data is equally important. For results to be meaningful, they need to be put in context. A tonne of carbon is a meaningless concept unless it is put in the context of something with which we are familiar: its nature and scale. Attempts to illustrate tonnes of carbon in sizes of hot-air balloons is equally meaningless if we don’t know how many hot air balloons equals a global crisis. A growing understanding that an average UK resident was responsible for roughly ten tonnes of carbon dioxide, that an average plastic “thing” is responsible for about five times its weight in carbon dioxide and that the apparently ubiquitous flight to New York is responsible for a couple of tonnes of carbon dioxide has really helped to bring the idea of a carbon-limited world into context.

And what should now really be focusing the minds of businesses and governments is the yawning gap between our current performance and the level of carbon dioxide that we will be able to emit if we are to hit those 80% reductions. Making it personal brings it home.

If we assume a ten-tonne(ish) lifestyle now, what does a two-tonne lifestyle look like? Is it achievable with technological solutions like windmills and solar panels? Is it achievable by exhorting consumers to buy a 190g of CO2e per wash laundry detergent or a 120g of CO2e per wash laundry detergent? Or are we going to have a more radical approach to behaviour change, the way we plan and operate our towns, the structure and length of our supply chains, our agricultural systems and dietary habits? That 80% will require a leap of not just technology, but of imagination and even faith.

From accounting to belt-tightening
To take the carbon currency theme further, there are many parallels between greenhouse gas accounting and financial accounting. Most people have an understanding of what £10 will buy, that a litre of milk is around the £1 mark. Even the smallest companies have financial accounts systems in place. And although company accounts aren’t always what they seem – just take the banks as a topical example – there is at least a long-standing tradition of accounting and reporting rules that mean we all understand more or less the same thing when we read a balance sheet.

We need to get to a similar level of literacy with greenhouse gas accounting. But, more importantly, we need to reach a stage where businesses have the understanding, data and systems to robustly monitor and manage carbon budgets; where carbon budgets ripple through departments in the same way as financial budgets do; and where vigorous cost-cutting techniques can also be applied to carbon. Businesses need this level of literacy not just to save the planet. As cap-and-trade mechanisms, such as the Carbon Reduction Commitment, start to extend their reach beyond the most energy-intensive sectors, businesses fail to manage their carbon at their peril. Having binged on fossil fuels and debt, we are now facing a combined credit and carbon crunch.

The future
So what will the future bring for footprinting? There will undoubtedly be further standardisation and harmonisation of accounting rules which will bring consistency and comparability between businesses. Hopefully, this standardisation will extend to the raft of climate policy initiatives so businesses can spend more time managing their carbon than measuring it.

The life-cycle approach, whole-life costing, supply chain custody and extending the scope of footprints beyond direct emissions will enable organisations to identify carbon footprints and to manage carbon risks and opportunities more efficiently. Data availability will improve, and the challenge will be not in working out a more accurate footprint but in using the footprint to identify how the individual, organisation or product can contribute to the massive reductions in greenhouse gases that are necessary over the coming decades.

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