Counting the cost

29th July 2016


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Andrew Symons

John Barwise checks out the motivations and metrics behind corporate carbon footprinting

Carbon footprinting falls into the adage ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’. The problem for most organisations is deciding what to measure and which footprinting calculator fits their business needs.

A Google search reveals a plethora of calculators: some measure direct emissions only, others cover only products or activities. The more ambitious ones focus on the full carbon lifecycle assessment (LCA) across an organisation and its supply chains.

Getting on board

At the climate change summit in Paris last December, 114 companies pledged to reduce their own greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions in line with the goal of keeping the global temperature rise below 2°C – the threshold that most scientists agree would trigger abrupt climate change.

Some of those companies, including Kellogg, P&G, Unilever and IKEA, have already had their targets approved under the Science Based Targets initiative set up by WWF, CDP, World Resources Institute (WRI), and UN Global Compact to encourage businesses to cut emissions. For many larger UK organisations, reporting GHG emissions is a legal requirement under the Companies Act 2006. Others are required to report them through the EU emissions trading system (ETS) or the domestic carbon reduction commitment energy efficiency scheme. But the business case for organisations of all sizes to measure and report their carbon footprint is persuasive.

According to Defra, the benefits include improving operational efficiency, lower energy and resource costs, a better understanding of business exposure to the risks of climate change, and a strengthening of leadership and green credentials that build investor and stakeholder confidence in an increasingly environmentally conscious marketplace. The Carbon Trust claims that 67% of UK consumers are more likely to buy a product with a small carbon footprint.

Looking at a footprint

A carbon footprint is generally defined as the total GHG emissions caused directly or indirectly by an individual, organisation, event or product. The total is expressed as CO2 equivalent (CO2e) to take account of not just carbon dioxide but other gases, including methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs)and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). All of these have relative global warming potential and are included in the Kyoto protocol on GHG emissions restrictions.

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, developed by the WRI and World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), sets the global standard for measuring, managing and setting boundaries for reporting GHG emissions.

To delineate between direct and indirect emission sources, these are categorised into ‘scopes’:

  • Scope 1 – direct emissions released into the atmosphere from activities in an organisation’s control, including those from onsite fuel combustion, boilers and other industrial processes.
  • Scope 2 – indirect emissions released into the atmosphere that are associated with the consumption of purchased electricity, heat, steam and cooling. These indirect emissions are related to an organisation’s activities but occur at sources not directly under its control.
  • Scope 3 – other indirect emissions, which are the consequence of an organisation’s activities but which occur at sources outside its control. These include purchased materials, business travel, water consumption and waste disposal.

The protocol serves as the basis for most GHG standards, including ISO 14064-1, which specifies guidance at the organisation level for quantification and reporting of GHG emissions and removals. A related standard, 14067, details principles, requirements and guidance for the quantification and communication of the carbon footprint of products, including goods and services, based on GHG emissions and removals over the lifecycle of a product.

Nigel Carter, a member of the International Organisation for Standardization’s committee on greenhouse gases and chair of the UK mirror committee, explains their relevance: ‘14064-1 is a requirements standard and provides what the verifiers describe as a “reasonable” or “limited assurance” for the accuracy of the inventory. It is typically used for international trades and for regulatory accounting purposes in a scheme similar to the ETS. 14067, on the other hand, is geared towards consumers who wish to make more sustainable buying choices. The outcome here is the quantity of GHG emissions associated with a product unit, for example kilogrammes of CO2 per tonne of cement, or grams of CO2 per kilo of sugar.’

BSI, the UK’s national standards body, defines a carbon footprint as ‘the amount of GHG emissions caused by a particular activity or entity’. In 2008, BSI, in co-operation with Defra and the Carbon Trust, published the UK’s first carbon footprinting standard, PAS 2050 (specification for the assessment of the lifecycle GHG emissions of goods and services). The primary objective of 2050 is to provide a common basis to quantify GHG output so that organisations can introduce more efficient emissions reduction programmes for their products and services.

2050 considers only the single impact category of GHG emissions associated with products (goods and services) and draws on the LCA methods established through BS EN 14040 and BS EN ISO 14044, as well as environmental labels and declarations covered in ISO 14020, to ensure whole lifecycle assessments are covered.

Carbon footprinting encompasses a range of sources, from direct emissions, such as fuels used on site, to those associated with supply chains and transport, which are indirect. For businesses, the key to carbon footprinting is to define the boundaries. A basic footprint might consider, for example, onsite fuel use, electricity and transport. A more comprehensive one would also include these but add emissions from industrial processes, land use and employee travel, as well as those related to suppliers’ goods and services.

Guiding lights

There is a range of footprinting guides to help. One of these, published by the Carbon Trust, explains two types: one that measures an organisation’s overall activities and another that focuses on the lifecycle of a particular product or service. Organisational footprints include scope 1 and 2 from the GHG protocol, with some flexibility over scope 3 choices, such as waste sent to landfill and employee travel. The boundary for product carbon footprints extends across the product lifecycle to include suppliers, customers and distributors as well as emissions created by disposing of product waste and the impact of recycling.

In most cases, the methodology is broadly the same – define objectives and boundaries, collect activity data and emissions factors, and calculate the footprint. Calculating the footprint of a particular activity involves compiling the data, such as electricity use in kWh or daily water use in litres and multiplying the number by a carbon emissions factor represented as CO2e per unit.

Decc (now absorbed into BEIS) publishes a set of conversion factors ( to help organisations calculate the GHG emissions of a range of activities, including energy use, water consumption, waste disposal, recycling and transport activities – although the latest version no longer contains international conversion factors.

The range of carbon footprinting tools is wide. There are simple ready reckoners for gauging the impact of a household, sophisticated business packages to measure the footprint at operational and organisational level, and some can be used by governments to evaluate regional and national effects.

Defra’s environmental reporting guidelines are helpful on setting boundaries, methodology and defining a reporting framework for all organisations, while its small business user guide is particularly useful for small firms. There are also bespoke guidelines, such as the RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) methodology to calculate embodied carbon of materials, which is used by the construction industry to identify LCA in building materials.

Valuable insight

Nick Blyth, policy and engagement lead at IEMA, says carbon footprinting offers a valuable insight to wider value chain and lifecycle impacts: ‘Carbon footprinting has matured. Early standards developments, such as 2050, have been revised and are still freely available. In the UK, Defra, Decc (now BEIS) and some academic bodies provide updated and freely available emissions factors. Complementing some valuable commercial, paid-for sources, this provision of credible and free guidance and data has been instrumental in helping the discipline to grow and establish.’

Public and private sector organisations are embracing carbon management in response to a combination of rising energy and materials costs, legal requirements to reduce emissions, and public concerns over the impacts of climate change. Those that adopt carbon footprinting as part of their management process are also seeing added value in terms of improved operational efficiency, better customer and stakeholder relations, innovation opportunities and improved competitiveness.

Case study I

NetPositive – Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust

Sustainability consultancy NetPositive was responsible for the first carbon footprints produced for NHS organisations in 2007 through the PCT carbon reduction programme. Since then, NetPositive has worked with numerous NHS organisations so that they can quantify their carbon emissions and design projects and programmes of work to reduce their environmental impacts. One is Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust (NHFT).

Why carbon footprinting?

The NHS accounts for about 25% of all public sector carbon emissions in the UK and 3.3% of all emissions in England. NHFT recognised that its operations affected the local environment and the health and wellbeing of people living and working nearby.

As a healthcare provider, the trust regards it as its ethical responsibility to limit the environmental and social impact of its operations. The trust uses carbon footprinting to monitor its impact as part of its sustainable development management plan (SDMP).

Legislative and other policy drivers also compel NHS organisations to act on sustainability and monitor their carbon footprints. These include the Climate Change Act 2008, Department of Health mandated annual sustainability reporting, the NHS carbon reduction strategy and the NHS standard contract.

What is measured?

NHFT wanted to demonstrate responsible stewardship and decided to include procurement activity alongside the more established reporting on energy, waste, water and travel emissions. The trust reports these emissions as its core footprint and has set reduction targets against which it monitors progress using Greenhouse Gas Protocol scopes 1, 2 and 3 (see main text).

The footprint has been verified by a third party as part of NHFT’s certification to the Investors in the Environment standard. This enables the trust to visibly demonstrate its commitment to reporting its environmental performance and reducing emissions year on year.

Results and benefits

Completing an annual carbon footprint now forms part of the NHFT’s SDMP and represents a key metric for monitoring environmental performance. Understanding operational carbon emissions site by site has allowed the trust to target the worst performing ones with improvement actions, such as energy efficiency measures, which may include installing LED lighting and new boilers in buildings.

The footprint helps to raise the profile of travel as a significant factor. Interventions to reduce the effects have included trialling a fleet of electric vehicles and developing fleet environmental performance criteria for procuring new vehicles.

For more information email [email protected]

Case study II


Global sustainability consultancy Anthesis has calculated thousands of carbon, water and ecological footprints for organisations, products, events and cities. These provide a basis for acting on the results, and help clients reduce their impact, save money and build more resilience into their businesses. One of its clients is a European packaging company.

Why carbon footprinting?

Carbon footprinting is essential to understanding the impact of the packaging firm and its products. It has operations globally and wanted to improve the ease and accuracy of collecting data from its many sites. More importantly, the firm was intent on engaging local business unit teams so they could see their own environmental performance. Anthesis developed a solution using a tailored package called Footprinter to collect unit data and focus frontline teams on environmental key performance indicators and analytics to collect all their facility impact data and generate custom reports. The footprint information is reported internally and externally to demonstrate performance year-on-year and comply with mandatory reporting standards.

What is measured?

The firm collects and reports on its operational data, including energy, waste, transport and consumption of raw materials. Both company and product footprints are monitored and reported. Footprinter is a software package based on the GHG protocol and Defra guidelines.

Results and benefits

The firm is on track to meet its 2020 reduction targets. It is expanding its environmental scope to focus on key hotspots and is working with suppliers and customers to reduce impacts. The results have made it easier to spot opportunities for reduction and have empowered business units to act. Having the detailed carbon footprint information allowed the company to benchmark against its peers, tracking and reducing emissions, and cutting costs. The software allows it to have real-time access to the footprint across the company. The firm can generate tailor-made reports and make use of the data provided. It also enables employees to be actively involved in the collection and monitoring of site-specific data.

For more information visit

Case study III


Integrated hybrid power systems company Firefly worked with a multidiscipline construction and resource management group to reduce emissions on a project in Bicester, Oxfordshire, with planning permission for 1,900 houses, a school, offices and shops.

Why carbon footprinting?

A £2.2m contract for infrastructure works at a 600 ha self-build community development is using Firefly’s Cygnus 4 hybrid power generator.

For construction projects without a grid connection, diesel generators are often used to supply 24-hour power, even when only low loads are required.

By combining a diesel generator with a hybrid power system, diesel consumption is reduced, playing a vital role in reducing CO2 emissions as well as nitrogen oxide and particulate matter onsite. In addition noise is reduced.

The decision to use the Cygnus 4 was in line with the contractor’s commitment to be more sustainable.

What is measured?

The site required power 24/7. During the day, power consumption is high – for site activities, offices, the drying room, canteen and toilets. At night use falls significantly.

The Cygnus 4 unit was connected to the site’s 160 kVA diesel generator and set to a continuous ‘load-sensing’ mode, which constantly monitored power requirements. The Cygnus turned on the diesel generator when high power was required, at the same time charging internal energy storage. When site loads fell, the Cygnus switched off the diesel generator and supplies power from the internal energy storage.

Measuring the unit’s fuel savings, performance and CO2 emission savings through use of Firefly’s cloud platform provides real-time energy use reports.

The CO2 calculations were based on:

  • Size of diesel generator – consumption rates were validated for all diesel generators.
  • Instant load data – the calculation references the load to consumption rates for generator size.
  • Diesel to carbon calculation – this calculates CO2 per litre of diesel, using 2.67/1,000 tonnes CO2 per litre, based on government conversion factors.

Results and benefits

Adapting to changing needs improved carbon savings across all applications, including tower cranes, pumps, accommodation units and night working. The project used hybrid power for 74% of the time over a two-month period (966 hours), during which 36 tonnes of CO2 emissions and 13,524 litres of diesel were saved.

The hybrid generator also overcame the challenge of having no grid power access without resorting to using diesel.

John Mustarde, sustainability director at Firefly, says: ‘We heavily invest in our research so that our customers can significantly improve their energy efficiency onsite. Evidence of this is our recent update to the Cygnus range, which now includes a powerful lithium iron energy storage option.’

For more information visit


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