The carbon footprint

How do we measure the ecological impact of any product, or our consumption habits and lifestyle?

We know that for any product that we use or consume there is a cost of resources that went into creating that product, also there is an amount of waste this product will eventually generate. 

There are different methods to measure this impact and these metrics are not purely academic, their importance is increasing on a daily basis as we individually or as part of communities and organisations try to make better decisions that will allow us to live within earth's resources. The alternative complete ecological collapse is too bleak to think about.

The carbon footprint measures the amount of total emissions of any greenhouse gases for any given individual, organisation, event or product

  • This measure is probably the most commonly used and it is calculated by listing all emission or looking at the lifecycle of the product for its calculation, the output being expressed as an equivalent of CO2 emissions
  • There are specific international standards for its measurements such as ISO 2007 or the GHG Protocol to name a couple.

Why do we care about impact metrics? 

Calculations of global current consumption patterns indicate that by 2050 we would need the equivalent of 3 earth's worth of resources and we only have one planet.

We all play our part with how we live.

Being aware of our impact is still not easy, so impact metrics are key so we can make better decisions. In the same way we might compare two food products by checking their nutritional labels we will very soon be able to compare carbon footprint and other ecological markers. 

What are the challenges to measure it?

There are huge difficulties in exactly quantifying the impact of any product and over the total lifecycle of a product which is key.

Lets take for example two items of clothing one made of polyester and one made of cotton, which one has the lowest footprint will depend on the following:

i) Each part of the production/manufacturing chain, from sourcing the raw materials, extracting the fibre, making the thread, making the cloth, dying the cloth, assembling the product, packaging it, transport throughout each part of the process and to a Retailer

ii) How the retailer handles and sells the product has an impact.

iii) Once purchased, the specific use of the product, how often is it washed, at what temperature, how is it dried, how many years is it used for until it is finally discarded, either to be recycled (by which process) or as not ending as waste (treated in which way) will have a different footprint. 

As we can see with this one example there is a very long list of factors that determine the exact impact.

Quantifying the impact needs to be done independently be able to distinguish very similar products as well as broader categories which is now more easily done. 

It is certainly a space which will take increasing importance as people and companies seek to reduce emissions.

What about carbon offsetting or carbon capture? 

The principle of carbon offset is that a person or company can pay for some activity which will capture the amount of carbon emissions that they have created.

Typically this involves planting trees as these are good carbon sinks, trapping atmosphere CO2 as part of their growth.There are many others such projects in developing countries helping communities switch to more environmentally friendly fuels for heating and cooking for example.

The thing about carbon offsetting is that it cannot go on indefinitely, the reason being there is not enough land on the planet to offset our current emission levels in the long-term. The only viable option for the future is significant reduction.

My carbon footprint, how it was estimated and how to reduce reducing it

Leaders for Climate Action invited me and Redpanti to join their project which exists to highlight the role that the Tech industry is playing to drive climate action. 

The process of joining Leaders for Climate Action involved calculating my personal footprint. 

I was asked about the following key areas:

  1. Travel - numbers of short and long flights taken, distance by car travelled last year.
  2. Energy & Heating - heating in my home, what size of home and number of cohabitants, source of my energy.
  3. Diet - the big things are eating Meat, eggs, milk or mostly or only vegetables
  4. Leisure/shopping - my monthly expenditure on this area, any leisure/shopping activity has inherently a carbon footprint.

My estimated carbon footprint for the year to date came out as over 14 tonnes CO2 emissions. 

I admit this was a meaningless number initially, however to my dismay the carbon budget per person in order to meet emission targets is just over 1.5 tonnes, meaning I was nearly X10 times over the budget. 

Needless to say I have a huge amount of work to do to reduce my footprint and need to plan key actions I can take in 2022 to further reduce my footprint. In my case travel and diet are the key areas to optimise. 

Key takeaways for me: There is a lot of work to do to reduce emissions and lower our carbon footprint. Companies and people care about this and are taking steps to improve. We are not alone. The right path is look to reduce consumption and then use substitutions of one higher emission product/service for another.