Mapping the full footprint
How easily could your organisation calculate its complete carbon footprint? If the answer is ‘not very’, then a new worldwide standard could be just what you need. Elisabeth Jeffries looks at how it works
Maria Hanrahan, project manager at Catalyst Housing Group, was faced with a choice: what insulation to buy for the 21,000-home association’s environmental retrofit programme? Which is the greener choice: natural wool insulation, produced by a smaller firm, or insulation that has come off a massive production line?
‘We found it difficult to compare products against each other in terms of embodied energy [the sum of all the emissions used to produce goods or services],’ she explains. ‘Another difficulty we encountered was that different manufacturers present data in different ways, making it hard to make like-for-like comparisons. ‘Some manufacturers don’t provide any information relating to embodied energy at all.’
What she needed was an umbrella standard for the carbon ‘brickprint’ of these products that accurately reflects the full carbon impact: from the materials used to make it to the energy used in manufacturing, and the impact it will have on energy use of the tenants who end up living in the insulated home.
If measuring your carbon footprint has sometimes been described as a black art, it is with good reason. Year-on-year inconsistencies in companies’ environmental reports give the impression that carbon footprints can be doctored to show whatever a company requires.
Organisations have got better at reporting their ‘direct’ carbon emissions - which might include the emissions footprint of their offices, their own activities and their energy use (known as scope one and two) - but the practice of measuring the broader impact of an organisation or product remains opaque.
What should be included in that complete carbon footprint? A new, worldwide voluntary standard cuts through the fluff, allowing both construction firms and housing associations to accurately report emissions in their supply chain.
But it may also bring new challenges.
Published in March by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, an ambitious new tool - known as by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Value Chain (scope three) standard - provides a framework for measuring the emissions of customers, users, suppliers and others beyond an organisation’s own boundaries.
But what are the implications of the standard, and how would a housing association apply it?
It will be a key tool for housing associations that want to measure their whole carbon footprint: including the impact of its tenants’ emissions, and, as many associations embark on major home-building programmes, the impact of the ‘embodied carbon’ in the new homes they build.
Associations could in the future also be asked for emissions information from property or building companies reporting on their own scope three emissions.
The purpose of the standard is to stamp out all ambiguity. Richard Baines, sustainable development director at Black Country Housing Group, says: ‘It’s been a long time coming.
Our interest in an agreed methodology is to get a level playing field for carbon-emission reporting. At the moment there are so many methods that a comparison is irrelevant. Once we can benchmark we can decide if we need to do something different.’
Several major businesses in the property sector have also taken an interest in the new standard, including British Land and Webcor, a large US construction company.
It is also likely to become more significant as buildings become more energy efficient and tenants’ contributions to their carbon footprint shrink.
It’s in the bricks
As Chris Erickson, chief executive of consultancy Climate Earth, explains, the ratio of embodied emissions to operational emissions is changing.
‘Greenhouse gas emitted to construct buildings becomes a higher and higher proportion of total emissions. It was 12 to 15 per cent 20 years ago because [operational] energy consumption was so high.
Now in the first 20 years of a building’s life the number rises to the order of 50 per cent.’
What this means is that the carbon footprint of a building is increasingly a matter of bricks and mortar as well as people inside boiling the kettle and leaving the lights on.
The WRI definition of scope three reaches into the deepest corners of businesses.
It covers a whole range of activities - not just supply chain emissions for making (in the case of the construction sector) building materials, but also, out of a total of 15 categories, emissions from investments, franchises, leased assets, use and processing of sold products, and transportation and distribution.
Some organisations report scope one and two emissions, but few report scope three. Those that do tend to exclude the emissions of indirect suppliers: suppliers of suppliers.
In that respect, the standard sets them right by ensuring both are included. ‘The bigger impacts could be in tier two [sub-contractors] rather than tier one [direct suppliers to the company],’ points out Cynthia Cummis, senior associate at the WRI.
Other crumples have been ironed out. In the construction sector, the emissions of a building during its use are significant. Buildings constructors and owners and occupiers have different scope three emissions. It gets complicated: the construction firm’s scope three emissions are the scope one and two emissions of the building occupiers.
If the WRI and the WBCSD’s record is anything to go by, the new standard could prove influential: WRI data indicates that more than 85 per cent of respondents to a 2010 survey used Greenhouse Gas Protocol scope one and two standards, which gives some indication of the organisation’s