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Understanding the carbon footprint

To what extent are we responsible for greenhouse gas emissions? In other words, how much do we contribute towards global warming? To quantify greenhouse gas emissions there is the carbon footprint, which quantities the impact of our activities on the environment in terms of de CO2 emissions. This calculation is not reserved only for companies!

What is the carbon footprint?

The carbon footprint is an indicator that quantifies greenhouse gas emissions. It is generally stated by way of a human activity’s carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). This quantifies volume emitted by the burning of fossil fuels. So it can be used to calculate the carbon footprint of a company, an area, a private individual, a group, a family, etc.
The term “carbon footprint” was chosen because carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. This overall quantification as a CO2 equivalent is used for all greenhouse gases quantified, yielding a result that is easy to interpret. The carbon footprint of a country can also be quantified in terms of greenhouse gases emitted by households (energy used for transport and heating), a country’s production of goods and services for the domestic market or imported goods and services.

Calculating the carbon footprint

The carbon footprint is calculated by quantifying direct greenhouse gas emissions generated by the energy used by the company/group/individual in question, including life cycle analysis. A product’s life cycle is quantified by taking account of its impact when in use (direct emissions) and also the impact of its production and disposal processes. So then, the calculation includes “indirect” greenhouse gas emissions that come from the supply of raw materials, processing, freight transport and distribution. Not forgetting destruction, recycling or processing once discarded. So then the footprint is bound to be bigger, but also more accurate.

Carbon footprint and carbon balance

The term “carbon footprint” is a general one which indicates the quantification aimed at private individuals or any other grouping. All countries quantify their greenhouse gas emissions in this way, as a carbon footprint, with a view to reducing (or offsetting) them.

As far as companies are concerned, the term “carbon balance” is used instead. This specialist tool was developed by the French Agency for Ecological Transition (ADEME). This carbon balance makes it possible to calculate the company’s footprint by quantifying its direct and indirect emissions.
Here in France, since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, companies with more than 500 employees have been under an obligation to produce and file carbon balances. In addition, they must all make their impact and investment strategy public. This investment strategy must take account of the country’s low-carbon roadmap decided upon by the government.

So what is the carbon footprint for?

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Whether concerning a company, a country or an individual, quantifying the carbon footprint is the necessary first step to fight global warming. The aim is to identify the sources emitting the most greenhouse gas. This is done in order to develop strategies and take steps to change certain processes or habits, with a view to reducing these emissions. This approach makes it possible to assess how urgently change is required, and seek out new solutions that will have less of an impact on the environment. This calculation makes it possible to then offset the CO2 emissions, i.e. to implement offsetting mechanisms via dedicated schemes. Moreover, companies’ carbon balances are made official via the standardised tool used to file them.

What is carbon offsetting?

For a company, carbon offsetting (or carbon contribution) consists of committing to a project on the ground which will have a positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions. This is done by either reducing or “capturing” them.
Because greenhouse gases impact the climate the same way regardless of where in the world they are emitted. Each eligible company (within particular industries) has a certain number of “carbon credits” specific to it, and determined in line with its potential CO2 emissions. If the company manages to reduce its emissions, it can sell on its credits on the “carbon market”. Here, each tonne of CO2 equivalent that’s reduced or captured (i.e. trapped instead of released into the atmosphere) rather than emitted equals one carbon credit.
In this way, a French company can invest in a tree-planting project, for example, even one on the other side of the world, and it can be registered in its favour. Its positive impact will be converted into carbon credits.
Thanks to its credits, the company can then honour certain ecological obligations. Their value is recognised as part of a policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, they do not go far enough on their own. Nor are they a substitute for an overall emissions reduction approach.
This is how what is known as “carbon finance ” came to be. Consisting of the project developers, specialist organisations and certification bodies involved, it implements, inspects and registers all such operations.
While this idea of carbon offsetting may seem somewhat hypocritical, it’s not enough to even pay lip service to an ecological strategy. However, the generation of carbon credits also generates other ecological and social benefits in the places where the projects are implemented.

Calculating your own personal carbon footprint

If you’re interested in trying out the exercise, be aware that there are a great many free online calculators available. They mainly take account of sources of greenhouse gases emissions:

  • Everyday travel (all means of transport combined), as well as less frequent travel like flights
  • The features of the household, its members, its size, water treatment and waste disposal
  • The energy used (gas, fuel oil, electricity, etc.). This means stating the type of heating, and also insulation present and domestic appliances, machines, electronic devices, etc.
  • Items consumed including food, clothing, medicines, beauty products, furniture, etc.

As a rough guide, the Ministry of Ecological Transition has put France’s carbon footprint at 11.2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per capita per year (that emitted into the atmosphere, of which eight tonnes of CO2). Some 85% of this comes from consumption, i.e. that which is paid for directly by individuals.
The remainder is indirect, and comes from the public services used by French nationals. A little-known fact is that homes don’t tip the scales by much. This is because some 90% of the electricity generated in France is what’s known as “decarbonised”. This means that it does not come from fossil fuels, but from renewable energies (hydroelectricity, solar energy and wind turbines) and nuclear power, all of which emit very little CO2.

Carbon footprint vs. ecological footprint

The idea of the carbon footprint sometimes gets mixed up with that of the ecological footprint.
The carbon component of the ecological footprint goes beyond this definition. It indicates how many hectares of planted forest it would take to capture the carbon dioxide emissions. This indicator represents the impact that burning fossil fuels has on the planet.
This carbon footprint, which accounts for half of humanity’s ecological footprint, must be reduced to fight this overconsumption.
The ecological footprint, of which CO2 is only one component, covers a broader spectrum. It is stated by way of hectares of productive land required to produce the goods and services that we consume or use, and to deal with the waste that they generate. Its most plain-speaking metric – and one commonly used in the media – is the number of planets that would be needed to accommodate our consumer habits. This makes it possible to compare ways of life (between nationals of different countries, for example). It also makes it easier to understand what kind of lifestyle we need to embrace to abide by the renewal cycles of our Earth’s natural resources.

Hidden footprint and carbon footprint

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Beyond the carbon footprint, we can also include life cycle analysis, i.e. go even further up the chain of responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions and take account of the remaining impact on the planet of our behaviour as consumers. Meaning the resources needed to produce what we consume, in the broader sense.
There are not really any set criteria on this, because the ecological footprint is aimed at quantifying the pressure that mankind puts on the environment.
Unfortunately, that quantification will always be an understatement of the real picture. Because while it takes account of the impact of using a product, it doesn’t quantify the submerged part of the iceberg. This refers to hidden resources. It could include the water used in the design process, the product’s impact on biodiversity or air pollution or the impact of waste generated downstream of its use, for example.
Yet these hidden resources are thought to account for more than 75% of the environmental impact of a product across its whole life cycle!

France’s carbon footprint

There is a tool to quantify France’s impact: the National Inventory. But this only takes account of the impact in the production location, i.e. for products made in France. Using this tool is an easy way for a country to dodge its responsibilities by having its goods produced elsewhere (and therefore generating pollution elsewhere). Conversely, the carbon footprint, taking account of the location where the end consumer is rather than the production location, offers a much more accurate analysis.
So applied to nations, the carbon footprint prevents a country from claiming to outperform its neighbouring countries by lowering its emissions… Yet importing goods all the while! By including greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the whole life cycle, including production and freight transport, the carbon footprint is an indicator far closer to the real picture. In all fairness, it prevents the sidestepping commonly done through the offshoring and importing of production.
That is why the carbon footprint is recognised now, not least since the Paris Agreement. This carbon footprint also makes it possible to quantify the ecological pressure exerted by an importing country on an exporting one and paint a fairer picture of developed versus developing countries.

So you get it by now, the carbon footprint is an indispensable lever to help nations make that transition and thus become more virtuous, or less vicious.

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