What is a Carbon Footprint? Here's Your Quick Guide | EcoOnline US

What is a Carbon Footprint? Here's your quick guide

Written by Dan Ryder

Published February 28, 2024

Before you can begin to think about how to measure your carbon footprint, you first need to understand exactly what it is.  

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Carbon footprints are measured in tons of CO2 equivalent or CO2e. Equivalent means that the footprint contains several different greenhouse gases (e.g. all those controlled under the Kyoto Protocol), which have been converted into the equivalent quantity of CO2. The equivalent allows all emissions to be shown as a single number. The chart below shows how this breakdown may look.  

chart showing an example of a carbon footprint breakdown

The importance of knowing your carbon footprint

It’s crucial to understand your carbon footprint. Without it, it's impossible to know where your organisation sits against sustainability goals and climate legislation.

Once you know your carbon footprint, it can provide a number of opportunities for your organization. Here are five ways it can help:

  1. Publicly reporting greenhouse gas emissions
  2. Setting a target for reducing emissions (setting a reduction target is necessary to know your current emissions)
  3. Identify which activities contribute the most to a footprint (to establish key areas for reduction efforts)
  4. Measure changes in emissions over time to examine the effectiveness of reduction activities
  5. Offset emissions (to offset emissions it is necessary to know how many reduction credits to purchase)

Download a copy of the free GHG Reporting Guide

What are the different types of carbon footprints?

Organizations, individuals, products, services, and events all have different types of carbon footprints. Each type of carbon footprint has various methods and boundaries for assessments.

For organizations, these assessments involve calculating the direct and indirect GHG emissions. So, what’s the difference between the two? 

Let’s start with direct emissions. These are from the combustion of fossil fuels in equipment or vehicles owned by the organization, and escaped greenhouse gases from the organization's facilities (e.g. refrigerant gas losses from air conditioning systems).  

Indirect emissions are all emissions which are the result of an organization's activities, but which are emitted from facilities or vehicles owned by third parties (e.g. an organization's electricity consumption indirectly causes emissions at the electricity generating plant, which is owned by a third party).  

Within greenhouse gas reporting, emissions can be categorized into three scopes:  

  • Scope 1 emissions: all direct emissions 
  • Scope 2 emissions: all indirect emissions from electricity or other imported energy (e.g. district heating, steam and/or cooling) 
  • Scope 3 emissions: all other indirect emissions associated with the organization's activities but not covered in Scope 2 (e.g. business travel, commuting, deliveries in third-party vehicles, waste disposal etc.)

photo of tower emitting greenhouse gases

What exactly are product assessments?

Product assessments include measuring all the emissions connected with a product. Product footprints can be from “cradle-to-customer”, which includes all emissions from the extraction of the raw materials, processing, manufacturing, and delivery to retailers/customers.

The second type of product footprint is “cradle-to-grave” or “whole-of-life”. This type includes all emissions sources for “cradle to customer” alongside the emissions associated with consumer use and final disposal of the product. 

The best practice for product footprinting is the Publicly Available Specification 2050 (PAS 2050). This standard has been developed by the British Standards Institute (BSI) and is sponsored by the Carbon Trust and the UK's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).  

Despite PAS 2050 being developed by UK bodies, the methodology is international. It provides a detailed specification for the assessment of the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of goods and services.  

PAS 2050 also builds on existing life cycle assessment methodologies such as ISO 14040 and ISO 14044, and provides additional principles, techniques and requirements relevant to greenhouse gas assessments.  

Your next steps...

So, you now know what a carbon footprint is. More importantly, you understand how important it is to have accurate data.  

One thing is certain, it’s vital that you have access to data that utilizes accurate emission factors for equivalent calculations. The issue is, where do you find the extra hours in your workday to tackle this? 

One small error is something you can’t leave to chance. With GHG Emission Reporting Software you gain access to expert sustainability analysts to ensure clarity and compliance. 

Download a copy of the free GHG Reporting Guide

Author Dan Ryder

Dan is an experienced copywriter with a master's degree from the Manchester Writing School. He joined EcoOnline in November 2022. 

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