Open-access content Tuesday 6th April 2010 — updated 1.53pm, Tuesday 5th May 2020
Whatever your stance on the climate change debate, keeping track of emissions is urgent business. So how is your carbon footprint looking? Are you even sure how to measure it?
By Duncan Brown
8 April 2010
As the world’s governments squabble over the true impact of global warming, it’s easy to imagine that climate change is having little effect on our day-to-day business. In fact, it is already transforming parts of every industry. Under the government’s Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC), new regulations require organisations to audit their carbon emissions every year, and pay for any excess they use.
Whatever your stance on the debate, keeping track of emissions is now urgent business for everyone. So how’s your carbon footprint looking?
Put simply, your footprint is the quantity of pollution that something or someone causes, measured in tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, also known as Equivalent CO2 (CO2e). The term ‘carbon footprint’ is a little misleading, as there are six GHGs in your overall footprint, as stated in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, including methane and sulphur dioxide. Carbon dioxide just happens to be the most prevalent.
The principle is simple. Because almost every activity requires ‘dirty’ energy (eg, fossil fuels or nuclear energy), in theory everything from a person to a building to a packet of crisps has a carbon footprint. But there is no hard-and-fast rule on how it should be calculated.
Take an office building. You can start with its ‘direct’ emissions: how much gas and electricity it uses. Fair enough, but what about refrigerant leaking out of the air conditioning? Or ‘indirect’ emissions, such as the energy staff use travelling to work? And what about the ‘embedded’ (‘embodied’, if you prefer) carbon that went into building the offices in the first place?
Standards you can trust
The biggest polluters in the world are power companies, but about a fifth of Britain’s emissions come from non-domestic buildings, so FMs will have a key role to play in identifying and reducing sources. They will also be in the thick of debates about responsibility for emissions.
Harry Morrison works for the Carbon Trust, a government-backed organisation that aims to help businesses cut their carbon emissions in the lead up to worldwide targets set for 2050.
Morrison’s department, the Carbon Trust Standard, is devoted to setting out a clear methodology for footprinting and rewarding companies which make an effort to reduce costs and cut emissions. If a company is awarded the ‘standard’, it translates directly into carbon credits under the CRC (see box right). A regulated seal of approval like this can also become a recognisable brand, and brings improved public relations with it. In Morrison’s words “it enables you to translate engineering detail into something that you can communicate”.
It’s also very important to have a recognised standard because in theory you could calculate a carbon footprint from something as basic as a Display Energy Certificate (DEC), the grade between A and F that all public buildings with floorspace over 1,000m2 are required to display. The grade is based on the building’s gas and electricity consumption, measured in kilowatt hours. To decide it, inspectors more or less average out energy use over 12 months and compare the total to a benchmark for that type of building. It’s an indicator of how efficiently the building operates, but it doesn’t include indirect and embedded emissions, so it has a very narrow scope.
At the other end of the scale is what’s known as a life-cycle assessment, which tries to take every possible emission into account. The classic example is the footprint of a packet of crisps, which includes the energy required to grow the potatoes, to slice them, fry them, bag them, transport them, and dispose of the bag (it turned out to be about 80g). Some 18 months ago the Carbon Trust used this as the flagship example for its PAS2050 standard, a set of guidelines which were the first serious attempt to make the process of a life-cycle assessment simple enough for ordinary businesses to use.
It’s time-consuming, though. Curious individuals might like to have a go at calculating their life-cycle carbon footprint, but most organisations have no easy access to such data. The Carbon Trust Standard is an attempt to balance the difficulty of collecting information with the need to get a true picture of emissions.
The standard, for example, includes direct energy consumption through fuel, electricity and all owned or operated vehicles. But it doesn’t include workers’ emissions through travelling or the embedded carbon in the building, as indirect emissions are, Morrison says, “very broad and very difficult to quantify”.
However, not everyone thinks Morrison and his colleagues have set the bar in the right place. Dr David Telford – director of sustainability at hurleypalmerflatt engineering consultancy – is extremely sceptical about any measurement that doesn’t take into account the emissions embedded in new buildings. About 10 per cent of the UK’s emissions come from producing building materials, and with organisations tempted to lower their emissions by moving to purpose-built ‘sustainable’ buildings, Telford is worried they will gain environmental points for doing something that, on balance, is detrimental.
“You can’t consume your way to sustainability,” he says. “We’re going to build buildings that are going to meet the energy regulations, but they’re not going to be sustainable. They might have a life of 25-30 years, and in a much more carbon-constrained future we’re going to be hauling them back down and building something properly.”
In his view, we need to better use the buildings we already have. In fact, he believes that we’ll still be using some of Britain’s 19th-century architecture when the new wave of sustainable buildings come down. For him, the only viable footprint “has to be a life-cycle footprint”.
However our footprints are measured, big changes are certainly on their way. Most firms are not at the stage of erecting a wind turbine in the car park, but companies like powerPerfector already offer efficiency-boosting voltage optimisation devices. powerPerfector is also beginning to offer companies before and after assessment under the International Performance Measurement and Verification Protocol (IPMVP). This protocol, invented in the US and developed over a number of years, provides solid data showing the exact benefits of an efficiency measure. What’s more, says Alex Rathmell, powerPerfector’s head of analysis, this means companies are “no longer reliant on the supplier to tell them how effective the project has been”. This should mean more vigorous competition among companies offering efficiencies, leading to better services.
FMs on the ground, says Morrison, “have been involved for a long time in the operational efficiency of the buildings they’ve been responsible for. That’s been a key focus from a cost-management perspective and that’s not going to go away.” But in future, FMs will increasingly mediate between landlord and tenant, as more and more potential quibbles over the cost-benefit split from investment in energy efficiency come to the surface in a building’s operational costs. And as the CRC kicks in, FMs with a good understanding of the metrics of carbon plus experience in sustainable practice will become more sought-after.
The prospect of 80 per cent emissions cuts may be daunting – and some at the Carbon Trust believe buildings will need to contribute even more. But hopefully the problem, and the costs, will be measurable.
Duncan Brown is a freelance journalist
The CRC Pledge
The Carbon Reduction Commitment pledges an 80 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050, beginning this April. Organisations with energy consumption over 6,000KWh must register by September and provide a carbon footprint by mid-2011 based on the last year’s energy use, which will rank them in a public league table. The Department for Energy and Climate Change provides the methodology. Those who go further and demonstrate “good energy management” by achieving the Carbon Trust Standard will gain carbon credits, which would otherwise cost £12 per ton, and will be ranked more highly. Depending on their performance, organisations may or may not receive that money back.
FM Quick Facts
• About 20,000 organisations will have annual “information disclosure obligations” under the CRC
• Around 10% of the UK’s emissions come from producing building materials
• Energy efficiency in non-domestic buildings could save over £4bn in the next 10 years
• The life-cycle carbon footprint of a packet of crisps is 80g