The evolution of product carbon footprinting

Recent changes to international standards have made product carbon footprinting potentially much faster, cheaper and easier. John Kazer explains how this could help companies take a leap forward in their commitment to cutting carbon emissions.

The Origin of Product Carbon Footprinting

Understanding the carbon emissions produced by goods and services across their lifecycle is of fundamental importance when it comes to understanding how to reduce those emissions. Product carbon footprinting allows organisations to identify hidden production or supply chain inefficiencies, or carbon-intensive hotspots where new processes and technologies can be applied. It can highlight risk, and help provide an accurate basis for management decisions and investment. It drives change and raises standards.

But product carbon footprinting is not easy. It originated from the commercialisation of the relatively new academic discipline of life cycle assessment (LCA). Getting a suitably accurate number requires a good understanding of the emissions in all the parts of that life cycle, typically either from raw materials to the factory gate (cradle to gate) or all the way to eventual disposal (cradle to grave).

Even apparently simple products, like milk or paving slabs, can have a tremendous variety of factors involved, requiring access to expert knowledge and high levels of information management. For smaller companies or products that are not widely-sold it can also be a prohibitively complex and resource intensive process in terms of time and money.

If the appropriate method is not employed the results can also be wildly wrong. If the right factors are not considered then calculated carbon footprints can be off by many orders of magnitude, undermining the ability to make a meaningful comparison.

Carbon footprints can also be communicated to customers and consumers, which can help them to make informed choices or comparisons. It is a clear signal that a company is taking responsible action on carbon emissions, and differentiates a brand from its competitors. This can be used to help businesses to understand the carbon embedded in their supply chain, and consumers to reduce their own personal environmental impact.

But what has been achieved so far is just a drop in the ocean in terms of what is possible. Having an accurate understanding of emissions is the crucial first stage in reducing them. It informs strategies for carbon management, highlights areas of significant risk, and identifies where the greatest impacts can be made. Carbon footprinting and LCA are relatively young disciplines. As they have grown they have been adapted in order to help meet needs in the real world – so that they can be a more effective tool in the transformation to a low carbon economy and help deal with the challenge of climate change.

Adaptation and Variation

So how have the international standards evolved to help more companies benefit from product carbon footprinting? As you would expect with a new market coming out of a rigorous scientific and academic discipline, when international standards were first created there was initially a lot of importance on numbers being as accurate as possible. This led to quite a narrow definition of a product, so that very similar but distinguishable items had to have individual carbon footprints produced – for example a bottle of water with a flip top or a screw cap.

This meant that organisations with a huge range of products would need to invest substantial effort and expense in order to footprint all of these. Although there were benefits in terms of corporate responsibility, enhanced reputation and identifying savings, the comparative cost and difficulty did not incentivise action. Fortunately, as more has been learnt about the practice and economics of carbon footprinting then international standards have evolved to allow for a more flexible approach.

When a company makes a decision to calculate the carbon footprints of its products there are often three key factors in play: understanding, accuracy and cost. The process needs to provide a good understanding of a product lifecycle, be accurate enough to draw meaningful conclusions, and it needs to be affordable.

By slightly decreasing the accuracy of the LCA of greenhouse gas emissions in goods or services then the cost can be massively reduced while still providing almost the same levels of meaningful understanding. Of course this means that independent, expert certification is even more crucial for building trust in carbon footprinting, so that management, suppliers and customers are able to rely on it to make decisions.

John Kazer is the certification manager at the Carbon Trust

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