Laboratory for Carbon Footprinting
We have been studying and modeling the impacts of products and processes on the environment for nearly two decades. Broadly considering an entity's effect on the environment requires a holistic look at many factors, but issues associated with climate change have focused many groups on greenhouse gas emissions, specifically on carbon dioxide emissions. This assessment is often called "carbon footprinting".
We have worked on carbon footprint projects with for-profit and not-for-profit entities, including hospitals, campuses, and cities. We have worked with the following partners in our work over time (many through membership in the GDI consortium): SAP, Alcatel-Lucent, FedEx, UPMC, AT&T, Consol Energy, IBM, buy.com, Microsoft, Intel, Planet Metrics, World Resources Institute / World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Through cooperative projects we can help set up and/or perform studies, help peer review them, and interpret results to inform decisions on how best to reduce impacts. Please contact us if interested in collaborating.
From Inventories to Action Plans
While our primary research approach over time has been in developing and applying methods of life cycle assessment (such as EIO-LCA), we have begun to leverage our long-standing expertise in the area to engage with standards organizations and companies to better understand how our research can inform better designs of footprinting guidelines for companies, cities, etc. While many entities have made commitments to reduce their carbon footprint (or become "carbon neutral") our work has reinforced how difficult (or impossible) such goals will be.
Our goal in the emerging field of carbon footprinting is to use our expertise to assist entities in recognizing:
- How a narrow focus on carbon can lead to sub-optimal decisions
- How large their footprint is in reality given a holistic view of their activities (e.g., comparing Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions)
- How their carbon emissions are difficult to validate
- How to identify large emissions sources in complex global supply chains, to help pinpoint where mitigation efforts can have the most effect
- How uncertainty or variability in emissions data makes it difficult to calculate a single "number" for a footprint, and to make decisions
These fundamental concerns have formed the basis of our research. Below are capsule summaries and links to the most prominent reports showing our work.
- We showed how Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions are in general only about 25% of the total carbon footprint. This work was published in Environmental Science & Technology. We are members of the Steering Committee overseeing WRI/WBCSD's Product and Corporate Scope 3 Footprint standards.
- We showed how input-output models could be used as a screening tool for Scope 3 corporate footprinting. This method quickly estimates which upstream, travel, and other categories contribute to the average company's emissions profile and helps set context for other efforts. Such methods can be used to help support corporate GHG accounting and reporting efforts.
- We showed how difficult it would be to meet preset "capture rates" (e.g., reporting 80% of emissions) in GHG protocols by looking at life cycle models of industries in Australia and the United States. WRI has recently removed such goals from the Scope 3 standard.
- We benchmarked the published emissions inventories of major US cities into key categories, and looked at which are the most popular components of metropolitan climate action plans. Most cities are not providing sufficient quantitative detail on their plans to know if they will achieve them, and we recommend specific targets (e.g., "achieve 10% increase in use of public buses for commuters" rather than "increase use of mass transit").
- We estimated the energy and carbon footprints of all colleges and universities in the US, and showed how a significant portion of endowment income would be needed to seriously address the reductions of these footprints.
- We are promoting uncertainty-based frameworks rather than simple database values in making decisions. We published two papers on uncertainties in life cycle inventories of petroleum as well as LCI uncertainties of biofuels in Environmental Science & Technology in early 2011. These show larger than expected ranges of emissions for fuels and that single point values are not useful in LCA models of such technologies. We also have one page research summaries on uncertainties in biofuel technologies and in petroleum based fuels as demonstrations of how important data and technologies are, and how decision makers need to be careful in using LCA data.
- Beyond uncertainties in biofuel inventories, we developed a policy analysis framework that considers the uncertainties in the underlying data and estimates the risk of policy failure (i.e., the chance that, given the uncertainty, the carbon reduction goals will not be met). In short, this means that policymakers and other stakeholders need to consider how large the uncertainty is when defining reduction targets. This paper won runner up as best policy paper in submitted in Environmental Science & Technology for 2010. We are now using this analysis framework to consider risks of other technologies and policies not meeting their targets, such as natural gas and coal substitutions, low-carbon cities, etc.