by Darrell Nelson
It seems to be banded about all over the media, some people are obsessed by their own and some people lecture you on yours, but just what exactly does it mean? The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘carbon footprint’ as: “the amount of carbon dioxide emitted due to the activities, especially the consumption of fossil fuels, of a particular person, group, etc.”
The idea of carbon footprints came about as a mechanism for countries as part of their reporting requirements under the Kyoto Protocol, but it is also used by companies, regions, and individuals. In fact, back in 2008 Japan launched a scheme to label the carbon footprint of food and other products on their packaging in a bid to persuade companies and consumers to reduce their greenhouse emissions. These labels display how much carbon dioxide is emitted during the manufacture, distribution and disposal of each product. A nice idea, but how accurate is that as an estimate of a particular product’s real carbon footprint? The problem arises when you take just the base facts as your carbon footprint result, whilst ignoring all of the CO2 emitted as offshoots of the main process. For example, does the manufacture estimate also take into account the CO2 emitted during the transit of raw materials to the plant or the extraction
of those raw materials?
The main discrepancy in measuring a carbon footprint therefore becomes clear when we start to look at what are called direct and indirect emissions. Direct emissions are the easily accountable CO2 gases like those outlined on the labels described above. Indirect emissions, however, are trickier to account for and calculate. For example, by reading this magazine you are contributing to indirect emissions depending on how you obtained your copy, either by driving to pick it up or traveling by train. In another example, the power company has a direct emission of greenhouse gas, while the office that purchases the power considers it an indirect emission. The problem is that the way in which companies measure their carbon footprint depends invariably on the organization and the standards they follow. Like with many sustainable things in the world today, the lack of a clear, worldwide auditing frame could cause one company’s carbon footprint to be a mere ‘toe-print’ compared to that of a firm that includes all indirect CO2 emissions in its measurement.
When trying to reduce the carbon footprint, factoring carbon offsets into the equation can make things even more confusing. With so many different carbon markets and ways of measuring these emissions available, companies or individuals can often calculate a number of different levels of CO2 they have offset depending on which scheme they use. Some of the main standards in the voluntary market include the Voluntary Carbon Standard, the Gold Standard, and the California Climate Action Registry. In addition, companies can purchase Certified Emission Reductions (CERs), which are the results of mitigated carbon emissions from UNFCCC-approved projects for voluntary purposes.
The path toward carbon neutrality then quickly becomes filled with various footprint sizes, depending on how deep a company or individual wants to trace its emissions back. Until we see some clearer rules and regulations outlined by either the UN or governments, companies that announce a certain carbon footprint could be squeezing into a shoe that is far too small.