What is a Carbon Footprint

Not quite footprints in the sand

'ICT today accounts for 2% of the global carbon footprint, but this is expected to grow.' Source: EU Commission

Whether the statement is true or just the application of mathmatics, there is a recognition of the impact that IT-generated carbon emissions now has on the global carbon footprint. Governments are now assigning a considerable amount of resources to the management of carbon emissions and with this a high degree of focus is being turned on to IT for the measurement and reduction of IT-related emissions. This document provides a brief overview as to what is a carbon footprint, how and why it is calculated.

Definition

The carbon footprint is a method of accounting for the total amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for which an individual and/or organisation is responsible.

The measure of accounting for a carbon footprint is based on carbon dioxide emissions (CO2e). All greenhouse emissions associated with the five remaining GHGs are reported in terms of CO2e. Use of a single measurement value in this way simplifies its calculation and usage for management and reporting purposes.

The Gang of Six

  1. Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
  2. Methane (CH4)
  3. Nitrous Oxide(N2O
  4. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
  5. Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
  6. Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6)

As CO2e is being used as a primary method of accounting carbon emissions, international coordination of standards and control are being established to ensure that a consistent approach is being taken to the calculation and usage of the value.

The carbon footprint is generally calculated based on a set of principles known as the GHG Protocol which are consistent with those proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for compilation of emissions at the national level. However, although strong international standards are emerging, they are not mandatory and some companies may prefer to develop their own methods of calculation.

Carbon footprint calculations consists of two main components know as direct and indirect emissions. This distinction is important as it allows for emissions to be calculated for a specific entity, or company and provides a mechanism to ensure that double accounting does not occur.

Scope of the Carbon Footprint

When calculating the carbon footprint it is important to ensure the boundaries of the calculation are established. It is possible to visualise the scope of the carbon footprint as having several different boundaries.

Carbon footprint at the department level
Carbon footprint at the department level

The definition of a boundary is an important concept when calculating the carbon footprint, but for simplicity we can consider the following scenarios.

An organisation, or company has many different functional roles which can be separated into groups, departments, divisions or any other unit of organisation that makes business sense. Creating a boundary at this boundary level makes it is possible to measure the carbon footprint within the unit.

This approach enables each business unit to be measured and locally-oriented solutions can be devised and applied as deemed suitable.

Problems can exist with departmental carbon footprinting such as achieving economies of scale that may only be possible when the solutions are applied across multiple business units. Often accruing cross-business unit benefits can be difficult and approaching the carbon footprint on a company-wide basis can help resolve this issue. However, assuming that the same calculation processes are used it is possible to complete departmental-based footprints and consolidate them at a corporate level, effectively achieving the same result.

In each case it is necessary, indeed mandatory, to have the agreement and support of the organisation's executive office, which inevitably means the sponsorship of any project at a Director level.

Carbon footprint at the organisational level
Carbon footprint at the organisational level

Carbon footprint across the supply chain
Carbon footprint across the supply chain

However, the ultimate approach is to view the carbon footprint across the entire supply chain. This is the most complex and difficult model to implement and is unlikely to be within the direct remit of any one company's carbon management initiative. The most likely scenario is that pressure will be applied through the supply chain by purchasing managers for their suppliers to be conducting similar carbon emission-based initiatives.

The EU is already applying this principle through its "Green Public Procurement" initiative. With European Public authorities having control of 16% spend within the EU's GDP, it is thought that using green-based priciples for driving purchasing decisions can substantially influence behaviour throughout the EU.

Other approaches include full life-cycle assessment (LCA) on a product or service based model. LCA is an ideal approach to establishing a business-focused carbon footprint model, but as with the supply chain model, for completeness it should cover the entire supply chain. Again a difficult approach for a company to adopt but LCA of business processes is now a well established methodology with relevent and well proven BSI and ISO standards. To complement business accounting processes, combining the LCA and organisational level models may prove to be a worthwhile compromise for many businesses.

Why Calculate the Carbon Footprint

Calculating the carbon footprint is a practical business-oriented activity and more than just an interesting academic exercise. It is important to calculate the carbon footprint using a set of standardised approaches and principles that apply to business processes and accounting practices.

There are many reasons for calculating the carbon footprint but they can be summarised as follows:

  1. To establish a true and fair account of CO2e.
  2. To simplify and reduce the costs of associated with CO2e.
  3. To provide Management with information that can be used to build an effective strategy to enable the preparation of a carbon management programme.
  4. To provide information that facilitates participation in voluntary and mandatory CO2e reduction programmes.

And Finally...

Carbon footprint calculations should not be considered as one-off exercises. In order to meet the requirements of a well structured carbon management programme, it is necessary to implement a process that can persistently and consistently be able to reproduce the calculation as a normal business process.

In this paper we have covered many aspects of what is a carbon footprint. The subject of carbon footprinting is both wide ranging and complex but addressed in a proper and professional manner can be used as a significant and beneficial business metric.



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