Calculating carbon footprints

October 2008

Industrial emissionsResearch has quantified how consumers' purchasing decisions drive carbon emissions - helping to develop PAS 2050, a product standard for carbon footprinting.

Truly understanding what drives carbon emissions is essential to tackle climate change. Most analyses of the UK's carbon footprint look at the emissions produced within the UK's territorial borders - but this ignores the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the production and transportation of goods and services imported from abroad and purchased by UK consumers.

Research by the ESRC Research Group on Lifestyles, Values and the Environment (RESOLVE) has addressed this issue by developing a scientific model, the Surrey Environmental Lifestyle Mapping (SELMA) Framework, which quantifies how UK consumers' purchasing decisions impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

SELMA shed new light on which products and services are most carbon-intensive by considering both greenhouse gas emissions generated by businesses in production and the emissions embedded in the goods and services along business supply chains. Such information helps business prioritise areas where emission reductions can be achieved.

Working further with the Carbon Trust, along with the UK environment ministry, Defra, and the British Standards Institution, RESOLVE has helped develop a product standard for carbon footprinting known as PAS 2050, ensuring that it included greenhouse gas emissions from products across their whole life cycle – from raw material extraction to product disposal. This new standard is the first widely-consulted method that specifically addresses the interest of both organisations and consumers in understanding the carbon footprint of goods and services.

The potential impact of the research was documented in the BBC’s Ethical Man series in 2006. The programme charted the progress of Newsnight reporter Justin Rowlatt and his family as they reduced their direct carbon footprint by 40 per cent in the space of single year, under RESOLVE Director Professor Tim Jackson's guidance. The programmes were broadcast to over 50 million viewers in 200 countries worldwide at the same time as a surge in public awareness of the dangers of climate change.

Impact

  • RESOLVE research helped in the development of the industry carbon-footprinting standard PAS 2050
  • RESOLVE's influence ensured the standard included the greenhouse gas emissions arising from products across their life cycle, from raw material extraction to product disposal.
  • SELMA was also used to assess the importance of the carbon emissions embedded in capital goods as a basis for deciding whether or not they should be included in PAS 2050.

Further information