What is a Carbon Footprint?

May 14, 2023

What is a carbon footprint measurement?

A carbon footprint estimates the total emission volume of greenhouse gases that is the result of any individual, organization, event, product or service. Greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, are released into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change and the trapping of heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.

How is it measured?

Although the measurement considers the emission of various GHGs that contribute to global warming, such as methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases, the outcomes are usually presented in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent, such as 5 tons of CO2-equivalent. Expressing results in CO2-equivalent enables simple and fair comparisons between activities, events, or industries that may otherwise be challenging to compare directly.4 The first step to managing our negative environmental impact is to know how much we are contributing on an individual and collective level. Measuring carbon footprint can help individuals and corporations understand their environmental impact and identify areas where they can reduce their GHG emissions.

The process of carbon footprint measurement varies depending on the entity being measured. For individuals, carbon footprint measurement usually involves calculating their personal consumption of energy, transportation, and food, as well as their waste generation. 

Carbon footprint measurements for individuals or households generally cover the following topics:

Home: number of people in the household, type of house, heating source, energy use, efficiency

Food: diet, amount spent on local food/restaurants/takeout, amount of food thrown away

Travel/Transportation: modes of transportation, hours of travel

Shopping: how much and/or how often they buy products in certain categories

Waste: types of materials they recycle

There are several resources you can use to learn more about the different areas of your life that generate GHG emissions. Many of these resources also provide solutions and recommendations for individuals and households to make lifestyle changes. By staying informed of what carbon footprints are and how they are calculated, we can be more mindful about our day-to-day lifestyle habits and understand how our individual actions contribute to a larger impact on the environment. Consumers can also search for brands that have the ‘Carbon Footprint Measure’ attribute in the ConsiderBeyond app to find brands all over the world that measure their footprint and take action to reduce their output.

Resources for Individuals

DoconomyLifestyle Calculator

WWFFootprint Calculator 

The Nature ConservancyCarbon Footprint Calculator

Klima appPersonal Carbon Footprint Calculator

US Environmental Protection AgencyHousehold Carbon Footprint Calculator

Global Footprint NetworkEcological Footprint Calculator

Carbon footprint measurement for companies is structured differently compared to that of individuals. Companies typically measure their carbon footprint by examining the emissions from their operations, supply chain, and products. Measurements for companies cover the emissions from all areas across the value chain, including their own operations, upstream activities, and downstream activities. The GHG Protocol serves as the leading greenhouse gas accounting standards for companies. These standards categorize GHGs into Scope 1, 2 and 3 based on the emission sources (see figure below for examples).

Scope 1 (direct emissions) - Emissions from operations that are owned or controlled by the reporting company

Scope 2 (indirect emissions) - Emissions from the generation of purchased or acquired electricity, steam, heating, or cooling consumed by the reporting company

Scope 3 (indirect emissions) - All indirect emissions not included in scope 2 that occur in the value chain of the reporting company, including both upstream and downstream emissions.

A 2022 analysis by the Carbon Disclosure Project found that Scope 3 emissions accounted for on average 75% of total Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions across all sectors.2 In fact, Food and FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) industries together are responsible for more than one-third of global emissions. Since Scope 3 emissions encompass downstream activities such as consumer use and post-use, up to 90% of Scope 3 emissions can be influenced by consumer actions.3 Despite these high percentages, it is actually difficult to calculate the indirect emissions. Companies that report emissions according to GHG Protocol Standards are also not required to report Scope 3 emissions. Although there are mixed opinions, the general trend is that more companies each year are reporting their Scope 3 emissions and publicly reporting them.4

Source: GHG Protocol Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Accounting and Reporting Standard

Carbon footprint measurement is important for companies for several reasons:

Cost saving and efficiency - As mentioned above, measuring their carbon footprint is the first step to identifying what aspects of their business result in the most emissions. Companies can therefore take appropriate actions to reduce energy use, consider renewable energy sources, and improve transportation efficiency to cut down costs and make the business more efficient.

Following the latest regulations or standards - Regulations such as the EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive are requiring companies to report their sustainability information. Evolving standards in many countries require businesses to report their carbon emissions and/or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. By measuring their carbon footprint, businesses can ensure compliance with these regulations and avoid penalties.

Demonstrating a dedication to transparency - Consumers respond well to companies that are open to publicly sharing their sustainability efforts and transparency of their supply chain. They also are increasingly interested in what companies are doing to provide value for their consumers while simultaneously considering their environment and social impact. 

Carbon footprint measurement is an important tool for understanding and mitigating the impact of human activities on the environment. By using trusted sources for measurement, individuals and corporations can take steps to reduce their GHG emissions and contribute to a more sustainable future.

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