Top Ten Tips for Footprinting – by Hyder Consulting

Turning your footprinting information into carbon-cutting action is no mean feat. John Mayhew gives advice on the key points, and discusses how to strike a balance between cost and accuracy

There has been a host of carbon footprinting conferences, seminars and articles over the last year or so and most readers will, by now, be well aware of the issues involved in measuring the carbon footprint of an organisation. But converting information to action is not always easy – and finding the right balance between effort (cost) and accuracy can be a particular challenge. The following top ten tips for success in carbon footprinting may help you on your way.

1. Define your aims

There are many reasons for measuring your carbon footprint, but not all will apply to you. You need to be clear about your own organisation’s aims. These may be to reduce your environmental impact, to raise the profile of the issue internally, to determine the size of the risk you face from energy costs, carbon regulation and customer demands, or to start a programme of action to reduce energy costs.

Once you are clear about your aims and priorities, it will be much easier to determine your approach, decide what information you need and allocate appropriate resources for the job.

2. Follow a recognised method

The relevant guidance for calculating carbon emissions should always be followed if your organisation is affected by regulation. However, if you are measuring emissions voluntarily, the best guidance is set out in the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol, which has been developed and improved over a number of years by carbon and energy experts and tried and tested by many companies. The method, recognised by both Defra and the Carbon Trust, also forms the basis for the relevant ISO standard

(ISO 14064).

Having a robust method underpinning your calculations is important because it will lend credibility to any results you put into the public domain. Using a carbon footprint calculator on a website may give you an indication of emissions. But if you do not understand what you have covered in your assessment and are not sure if you will be able to replicate it next year, the value to you and your target audience will be lessened.

3. Use the right emission factors

Defra has produced a set of emission factors based on national energy and transport statistics, and associated guidance for their use. Unfortunately, green tariff electricity is unregulated and suppliers’ claims of zero carbon should be treated with scepticism. Even if your green tariff electricity comes with a Levy Exemption Certificate, it is rarely zero carbon. The Defra guidance explains how to treat green tariff electricity.

4. Be clear about scope

At a minimum, your carbon footprint should include emissions from fossil fuels used on your premises and in vehicles owned by your organisation – as well as electricity consumed. Although you have no control over emissions from electricity generation, you do have control over the amount of electricity your organisation uses. The result is some double counting at a national level (but leave that problem to Defra).

There are other emissions sources that can be included, such as the use of public transport for business travel, transport by suppliers or disposal of waste. If you also include the embodied (or lifecycle) carbon emissions for products that you use, such as water, manufacturing material inputs, or office equipment, the list is almost endless. What you include should reflect your aims, the practicality of measurement and the significance of the source.

Should you include non-CO2 greenhouse gases? If your organisation carries out chemical processes that release greenhouse gases such as methane or nitrous oxide, the answer is yes. For other organisations, the answer depends on how comprehensive an assessment you require. Non-CO2 greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion and leaking air-conditioning systems will generally account for less than 2% of your total carbon footprint, so the impact is marginal.

5. Use information systems you already have

Your accounts team will probably have most of the data needed to estimate emissions – for example, energy bills, fuel claims or travel receipts – because most emission sources also represent business costs. But the system may need tweaking to deliver the right information. There is usually no need to develop new systems to collect and record data because important sources of emissions tend to be associated with large business costs, which are rarely ignored.

6. Focus effort on significant sources of emissions

How do you know what to focus on? To make a decision, you need to know approximately the percentage split between different emission sources.

The first step is to produce a rough annual estimate of your total emissions. Fortunately, accurate data for key emission sources, such as fossil fuel and electricity consumption, are usually quickly accessible from energy bills. If you are a logistics or service sector company, you should add to this company vehicle fuel consumption, as this could be an important emissions source. Use Defra emission factors to calculate these emissions first.

Then consider the other emission sources, such as miles travelled by train on company business. For these sources, data may be harder to come by or may not exist at all. If data is not available, make some worst case assumptions and apply appropriate Defra emission factors to estimate the annual emissions of the source in question.

Check the proportion of each source to your initial estimate of total emissions. For sources that are less than 1% of the total, it may be sensible to stick with the worst case estimate rather than spending resources tracking down the data needed for accurate calculation. But you should aim to ensure you have robust estimates for at least 95% of the emissions within the scope you have defined. So, if you have a number of small sources that together could contribute more than 5% of the total, you may need to do more work.

7. Don’t get carried away with embodied carbon

Calculating embodied carbon emissions from materials that you buy, or waste that you produce has become a hot topic, triggered in part by the food miles debate. Some argue that by including these emissions in your carbon footprint you are taking responsibility for the actions of another company, and others that you are consuming resources and so are ultimately responsible. Either way, estimating embodied carbon is not easy.

Emission factors are available from some published studies for basic materials, especially construction materials, but there is considerable variation between estimates depending on manufacturing process or supply chain and on the calculation method used. For products that comprise more than a few component materials, embodied emission factors are not widely available and their estimation requires complex lifecycle inventory tools.

The problem here is not only one of information shortage, but also of consistency of use. By reporting only embodied carbon emission of materials for which factors are known, or that you consider important, you will be painting an incomplete picture of your organisation’s impact. The value of the estimates is therefore limited and calculations best avoided unless, like water companies, you have a regulatory requirement to report them.

8. Have year-on-year comparability

Without year-on-year comparability, it is impossible to measure progress. To ensure comparability, it is important that data coverage is comprehensive (or in the case of a sample, representative) and that system for collecting data is maintained. It is always good to improve systems to enhance accuracy, but make sure you understand the implications of changes before your make them.

To account for changing staff numbers, turnover, acquisitions and disposals, it may be more useful to focus on indicators of performance, rather than absolute emissions. Examples include: tCO2/employee, kgCO2/m2 of office space and kgCO2/unit of product. These will help you benchmark performance.

Defra updates its emission factors periodically. For example, the factor for grid electricity changes as the national energy mix changes. Even though these changes appear to reduce comparability, you should use updated factors because they reflect the changing reality of use of fossil fuel combusting technology in the UK.

9. Don’t confuse carbon footprinting of companies with that of products

Carbon footprinting for individual products or projects and events is possible, but the methods used are different to the method for organisations.

If you want to determine the carbon footprint for a product, you will need to estimate its embodied or lifecycle carbon emissions. The British Standards Institute has developed a method, PAS 2050 (see page 6 for more details) and this is the approach that the Carbon Trust recommends for its carbon labelling scheme. There is also growing interest in the carbon footprint of projects – particularly events, such as conferences or exhibitions – and more recently construction projects, but there are no standard methods for these calculations.

10. Use the results

Measuring your carbon footprint is a means to an end. It provides you with valuable information about the source of carbon emissions across your organisation, but it does not reduce them. That is down to you.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie