Is Carbon Footprinting Worth It, and for Whom?
Most people I know have heard of the term Carbon Footprint before. It’s a term that has been around for 3 decades or so - originating from the work of William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel who developed the concept of the “Ecological Footprint”. Rees is a retired professor at the University of British Columbia, and Mathis Wackernagel is the President of the Global Footprint Network, and they developed this concept in the 1990s as a way to measure the amount of nature required to support human society. The “Ecological Footprint” speaks in terms of the number of earths we would need to support a type of lifestyle. For example, here in Victoria, Canada, we would need 4 whole earths to support the kind of lifestyle we have grown used to living.
This is a pretty powerful visualization exercise, and raises some questions. How best can we invest in emerging economies to ensure people around the world can escape poverty and reach a desirable living standard? Which technologies should we use to increase energy efficiency and decarbonise our own economies, to ensure that we reduce the burden of our lifestyle? What does a one-earth world look like, and how can we attain it quickly and justly?
All those questions are part of the larger conversation about climate justice, and I encourage you all to go watch the TED Countdown Global Launch on Youtube. It’s a long video, but the section on Transformation deals with many of those questions, and provides some interesting answers. Probably most importantly, those of us in affluent neighborhoods, cities, and countries have a responsibility to clean up our economies, improve energy efficiency across all sectors, and band together to reduce the load of human society on earth so that we no longer need to have 4 earths to sustain us (which, shockingly, is not a possible future no matter how cool it is that astrophysicists are finding Earth-like planets as we speak. Hate to break it to you, but colonizing space is not the answer to fixing our mess here on Earth.). By taking on this responsibility, we can buy time for and help developing and emerging economies to grow.
Is a Personal Carbon Footprint a Good Idea?
Putting aside the important conversation of a one-earth world for a moment (don’t worry I intend to write about it more in future blog posts), let’s go back to the concept of a carbon footprint, which is a slightly different measure. The hint is in the name. This measurement is the total amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are produced during the production of a product, the use of that product, and the end of life stage of that product. It has also become popular to calculate an individual’s carbon footprint, the bulk of which comes from food, housing, and transportation. Businesses can also have their carbon footprint measured, taking into account things like the energy efficiency of their office, staff vehicles, electricity and water use, and more.
There is no denying that in the face of the disheartening carbon footprints that big corporations often have, our own personal carbon footprints seem like small fry. Furthermore, online carbon footprint calculators can only give an estimate of what your lifestyle actually costs in terms of GHG emissions. However, I do think that using an online carbon footprint calculator can be helpful if you want a visual reminder of how your lifestyle impacts climate change. For example, I used Footprint Calculator, and my carbon footprint is estimated to be 6.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year. The website goes into further detail about what areas of my life are emitting more than others, and how to improve in those areas. Some interesting notes about doing this exercise: In 2020, I have flown 12 hours (at the very beginning of the year we went on a family trip to Hawaii, which is 6 hours by plane from Victoria). I know that in past years I have flown more than that, so this estimate is probably a very low one for me, as air transport is one of the highest emitting activities an individual can do. I live in an old building converted into apartments, and I know that it’s not heated efficiently - the outdated single paned windows are a big clue, and the vintage radiators with no controllable thermostat in our unit - so that’s another area that popped up as an inefficient use of energy. I have resolved to be more active in communicating with my landlord to see what can be done about these issues, and will keep you updated on any progress. Finally, I realized that though I eat a mostly plant-based diet, much of my food comes in packaging, which I knew but the reminder was helpful. Since we have access nearby to farmers markets and unpackaged produce, I will begin reducing the amount of packaging we purchase along with our food.
Like me, these measurements might help you drive home the knowledge that certain habits may need some rethinking. Or, they may highlight some injustices in your neighborhood - such as inadequate public transportation, or the inaccessibility of local, fresh, and unpackaged food. Becoming aware of these issues is the first step of figuring out what to do about it. And yes, many of you reading this may already be painfully aware of these issues, but I hope that if you are not, this discussion helps you in some way.
How Can Businesses Use Carbon Footprinting?
Carbon footprinting becomes even more interesting and useful when businesses use it. As part of my degree, we learned about the GHG Protocol and how to implement its guidelines to do a carbon audit of a business. A common phrase that my professor in Carbon Measurement told us: What gets measured, gets dealt with. This practice is a useful tool because much like with an individual it can reveal carbon emission hotspots in the businesses activities and operations that may not be immediately obvious.
The way carbon footprints are measured for businesses is different than how it’s done for individuals. First of all, although you can find online calculators that can give you an estimate, there are different scopes to take into account. The GHG protocol talks about 3 scopes. Scope 1 includes all direct emissions that occur on-site, generated by owned air conditioners, furnaces, chemical operations, fugitive emissions, and more. This may not sound like something your business has to deal with much if you work in an office, and you would be correct, but it is an important category for many businesses that produce energy, work in construction, or produce products. Scope 2 is the group of indirect emissions that result from the purchased electricity a business uses. Finally, Scope 3 entails any other indirect emissions - this could include emissions that result from further up the supply chain. I will be covering this topic more in depth in future blog posts and have plans for developing an online workshop, so let me hear your questions in the comments section below!
Aside from the obvious “What gets measured, gets dealt with”, doing a carbon footprint audit of your business can also have other benefits. The carbon footprint audit is the first step to developing a sustainability plan. Once you know how your business uses energy, where hotspots are in your activities and along your supply chain, you can start to decide what to change. Reporting your measurements and your sustainability plan not only improves your transparency to customers and sends a clear message of your intent to become more carbon neutral in the future, but reporting is also becoming requested more frequently by investment groups, government regulators, and reporting agencies. Long story short, it’s a smart move.
The carbon footprint is a measurement tool. Like a weight scale, this can be useful for some people who find the information helpful for their goals and their lifestyle. But it should not be held up as a way to compare each other and make claims of superiority based on a number. However, when used in the business context it can be hugely useful and definitely worth it. Not only will doing a carbon footprint audit of your business reveal hotspots, but it is also the beginning of developing your sustainable business strategy. Once you know where you are starting, you can plan those next steps to save your business money, reduce negative impacts on the world you business activity might be creating, and increase the confidence of your customers that you are a business owner who cares.