Most practitioners in 21st century sustainable supply chains know – or at least think we know – what is meant by the term “carbon footprint.” But measuring the carbon footprint of products, activities, processes and people is a highly complex endeavor.
Of course, our goal ought to be to craft a methodology that is clear, unambiguous, and broadly understood while at the same time being comprehensive, timely and robust. Further, we ought to be able to arrive at such metrics quickly, with a minimum of effort.
One of the key benefits to developing such measures is to allow consumers and customers to make informed choices about the products that they choose to buy. If the end-user is green-sensitive, then he or she will weigh issues such as carbon footprint against overall cost and utility in the purchase decision. The same principle will hold true of customers upstream and within the supply chain.
It is with these objectives in mind that Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science has worked in partnership with PepsiCo Inc. and The Earth Institute for the past five years to develop a novel and efficient approach to measuring the carbon footprints of broad ranges of SKU’s (stock keeping units) across multiple product families.
This is data mining on a huge scale.
What is a Carbon Footprint?
First we should explore precisely what it is that we mean by the term “carbon footprint.” Duncan Clark of the Guardian in the UK published in April what is a pretty decent explanation of the concept:
A carbon footprint is an estimate of the climate change impact of activity – such as making a product, living a lifestyle or running a company.
Typically, a carbon footprint is calculated by estimating not just the CO2 emissions that the activity in question causes, but also any emissions of other greenhouse gases (such as methane and nitrous oxide) and in some cases other types of climate impacts as well, such as vapour trails from aeroplanes. For simplicity, all these impacts are added together and expressed as a single number in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e): the amount of CO2 that would create the same amount of warming.
There are many existing and evolving standards for calculating carbon footprints but in truth no footprint is precise. Even for simple activities such as burning a litre of petrol, which releases a known amount of CO2, there are still uncertainties about the emissions caused by extracting and refining the petrol before it was burned. For more complicated activities these uncertainties are greatly multiplied. As Mike Berners-Lee explains in his book, How Bad Are Bananas?, The Carbon Footprint of Everything:
“The true carbon footprint of a plastic toy includes not only the direct emissions resulting from the manufacturing process and the transportation of the toy to the shop: it also includes a whole host of indirect emissions, such as those caused by the extraction and processing of the oil used to make the plastic in the first place. These are just a few of the processes involved. If you think about it, tracing back all the things that have to happen to make that toy leads to an infinite number of pathways. To make the point clearly, let’s try following just one of those pathways. The staff in the offices of the plastic factory used paper clips made of steel. Within the footprint of that steel is a small allocation to take account of the maintenance of a digger in the iron mine that the steel originally came from … and so on for ever.”
The traditional way of estimating a carbon footprint – so-called ‘lifecycle assessment’ – involves adding up as many of the emissions pathways as is feasible. An alternative approach is to use so-called ‘input-output’ analysis. This aims to avoid missing out pathways by taking the total emissions of a country or region, dividing it lots of sectors (e.g. toy manufacturing, food growing, freight, etc) and estimating the total emissions that each sector accounts for. Those figures can then be used to estimate the footprint of, say, each pound spent on toys. (Read more…)
How to Measure Carbon Footprints, Quickly and Effectively?
Enter Columbia Engineering.
In a fall bulletin, Columbia University made the following announcement:
Researchers at Columbia Engineering have developed a new software that can simultaneously calculate the carbon footprints of thousands of products faster than ever before.
“Our novel approach generates standard-compliant product carbon footprints for companies with large portfolios at a fraction of previously required time and expertise,” says Christoph Meinrenken, the study’s lead author and associate research scientist at Columbia Engineering and The Earth Institute.
The study, recently published online in the Journal of Industrial Ecology and scheduled for the October 2012 print issue, is the result of a collaboration that began in 2007 between The Earth Institute, Columbia University, and PepsiCo, Inc. The collaboration’s original aim was to evaluate and help standardize product carbon footprinting and labeling in both the U.K, and the U.S. This resulted in the first ever certified product carbon footprint in the U.S., for Tropicana orange juice. The work, conducted at the Institute’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, was expanded in 2009, advancing from manual measurements to automated, big-data-supported footprint calculations, and PepsiCo has been successfully pilot-testing the methodology since summer 2011.
Meinrenken and his team used a life-cycle-analysis (LCA, a tool used to judge the environmental impact of a product) database that covered 1,137 individual products from PepsiCo. The researchers developed three new techniques that work in concert in a single approach, enabling them to calculate thousands of footprints within minutes and with minimal manual user input. The key component in the Columbia Engineering methodology is the design of a predictive model that generates estimated emission factors (EFs) for materials, thereby eliminating the manual mapping of a product’s ingredients and packaging materials to commercial LCA databases.
“These autogenerated EFs,” says Meinrenken, “enable non-LCA experts to calculate approximate carbon footprints and alleviate resource constraints for companies embarking on large-scale product carbon footprinting.”
The software complies with the latest product LCA guidelines sponsored by the World Resources Institute, and any carbon footprint it calculates can easily be audited against this standard, he said.
Up until now, companies trying to carbon footprint their entire range of products, such as Tesco in the U.K., have faced major obstacles—mostly enormous requirements on personnel, expertise, and in the time it takes to collect and analyze all necessary data. That’s because life-cycle-analysis has traditionally been performed manually, one product at a time, and so carbon footprinting large portfolios of many distinct products and services has proven very resource-intensive. Most companies do not have the manpower to focus massive numbers of personnel on the task, especially since it requires extensive, specialized LCA expertise. As a result, quantifying carbon footprints for the often hundreds or thousands of individual products of globally operating companies has essentially been impossible. Meinrenken notes that while some companies have tried to overcome this bottleneck by reverting to aggregate data and calculations, they usually miss out on the very microscopic level of detail that proper LCA offers. This can cause compliance issues with international footprinting standards.
Tina Casey of TriplePundit.com commented upon the development enthusiastically, in her October 1, 2012 article titled “Pepsico Gets “Instant” Lifecycle Analysis for 1,137 Products:”
A five-year partnership between Pepsico, the Earth Institute and Columbia Engineering at Columbia University has yielded a new lifecycle analysis software tool designed to help companies assess the carbon footprint of their products far more quickly and with greater detail than ever before. The software can analyze thousands of products simultaneously, within a matter of minutes.
Conventional lifecycle analysis involves a great amount of time and labor because it relies on manual input performed on a case-by-case basis. With this new tool in hand, global companies like Pepsico, which has had 1,137 separate products analyzed in pilot tests of the new software, will be better equipped to manage their carbon footprint while growing and updating their lines.
Mining big data for lifecycle analysis
According to Columbia Engineering, studies leading up to the new software began in 2007 at the Earth Institute’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy with the initial goal of standardizing carbon footprint assessments and labeling for products in the U.S and the U.K.
Early versions of the software began with a reliance on manual measurements. By 2009, the researchers had graduated to using automated data mining systems that require far less user input, taking advantage of the enormous quantities of data that are being amassed by global companies.
The software involves combining three new methodologies, resulting in a system that provides “very microscopic level of detail” far greater than other estimating techniques.
Especially noteworthy is the system’s ability to predict emission factors through modeling, eliminating the need to manually match a commercially available lifecycle database with the materials and packaging of an individual product.
That turns a laborious task into an almost “push-button” operation that can be mastered by persons without specialized training in lifecycle analysis, enabling companies to be more quick and nimble in new designing products and tweaking old ones.
Similarly, Alison Moodie of GreenBiz.com reported on the development in her October 9, 2012 submission:
For a company like PepsiCo, which oversees more than 20 brands and hundreds of different products around the world, calculating the carbon footprint of just one of its products can take weeks, and at a significant cost to the company. To save time and money, PepsiCo teamed up with researchers from Columbia University’s Earth Institute to create a tool that can measure the carbon footprint of thousands of products all at once.
The calculator, which lacks an official name, can calculate the carbon emissions of different materials and activities in a company’s supply chain and operations, and within minutes pinpoint which of these carries the largest carbon footprint.
“The objective was to give companies several capabilities at once with only a single effort,” said Christoph Meinrenken, the tool’s lead researcher and associate research scientist at the Earth Institute.
The calculator was developed to follow publicly known carbon footprinting standards such as the GHG Protocol Product Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) standard and PAS20:2011. The methodology and software helps businesses identify which materials or activities in their supply chain and operations have the biggest effect on the total carbon footprint of one of their products, product lines, brands or regions. The calculator also reveals the accuracy of this information and how this accuracy can be improved so a company can make better business decisions.
“We saw the opportunity to use our carbon/greenhouse gas analysis as a base for building a broader decision-making tool that could help us identify other efficiency opportunities throughout our supply chain, drive innovation and improve our overall operations,” said Robert terKuile, PepsiCo’s senior director of environmental sustainability.
The tool also provides certifiable product footprints to be used in ecolabeling and for environmental measuring groups such as The Sustainability Consortium and GoodGuide. This certification requires an intensive, bottom-up assessment of each product’s entire life cycle in order to provide the required microscopic level of detail and to be auditable outside the company, said Meinrenken.
And so, the work at Columbia Engineering is meeting with lofty praise. Our hope now is that major corporations, like PepsiCo, will be able to lever this new approach to convey the relevant information in a cost-effective and timely manner.
It seems that they are well on their way.
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