Carbon footprint: An unavoidable challenge for companies

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The consequences of the carbon footprint are concerning for the world. A recent study, led by a professor from the University of California, indicated that air pollution is likely the cause of premature birth for up to 6 million people in the world, half of them underweight. And according to research published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment (of the Nature group), the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, added to the climate crisis, can leave up to 11 million people living under extreme heat conditions in Brazil, with temperatures that could exceed 34 ° C of thermal sensation in the shade.

In both situations a common factor is repeated. The degradation of the environment, through the emission of greenhouse gases, and the consequences caused by individual and collective actions, of which no one is on the sidelines, not even companies. According to the document of the Parliamentary Technical Advisory “Carbon footprint per person in Chile”, published in 2020, the individual carbon footprint in the country reaches 4.66 t CO2 per year. Compared with the results of a trip between Valdivia and Santiago (round trip), the trip represents approximately 6% of the personal carbon footprint measured with the Carbon Footprint calculator and 4% for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) carbon footprint calculator.

The trend that is strongly observed is that companies are assuming their responsibility and seeking to reduce the environmental impact they cause. And one of the first steps in this quest is to take charge of your carbon footprint.

What is the carbon footprint?

The carbon footprint can be defined as the impact caused by humanity on the planet, through the emission of greenhouse gases that each individual emits directly or indirectly. In other words, it is the environmental mark generated by humans, companies and even products, which is counted according to the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG) that reach the atmosphere.

It is a sustainability indicator for the environment. It reflects the gases that are emitted at every moment and accumulate in the atmosphere producing what is known as the greenhouse effect.

According to data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), from 2017 to 2018 there was a new record for GHG emissions and CO2 reached 407.8 parts per million (ppm) in 2018. A level 147% higher than that existing in pre-industrial times (1750).

CO2 contributes to the increase in solar radiation on the planet. The WMO data assure that 80% of the total radioactive forcing, a phenomenon that determines the difference between the solar radiation that Earth absorbs and is capable of releasing back into the atmosphere, is the responsibility of CO2, which is the main long-lasting GHG and that, together with methane and nitrous oxide, raise temperatures on the planet.

Carbon footprint and environmental impact: how to control it

Due to its polluting nature, the carbon footprint generates an environmental impact that puts pressure on companies to adopt policies that are increasingly responsible for the environment. As a consequence, a series of measurements were created to control this impact, using carbon equivalent units (CO2eq) as a parameter.

These units not only consider CO2 but also other greenhouse gases, although for practical purposes, the results obtained for each gas are subsequently converted into CO2 equivalents.

And to keep the environmental impact under control, there are international standards that measure GHG emissions. We are talking about ISO 14064, ISO 14069, ISO 14067, PAS 2050 or GHG Protocol, among others, whose contribution is to allow, through the size of the registered footprint, to generate the necessary data so that companies can implement strategies for the management of emissions.

Calculating the carbon footprint

A company’s concern for the environment is no more than a declaration of principles if something concrete is not done. And the first step considers the calculation of the carbon footprint that the organization has.

Carrying out this calculation is the first concrete action that a company must take if it seeks to improve or reduce the costs of its production process, reducing energy costs and taking an active role in reducing its carbon footprint.

To achieve this, an Inventory of Greenhouse Gases (GHGI) must be generated, where during a specific period the emissions produced by the company are recorded, following the international standards determined by the aforementioned regulations.

Those measurements are then differentiated into three levels:

  • Direct Emissions (Range 1) – These are GHG emissions that come from controlled sources or owned by companies and that are emitted directly into the atmosphere by them. All gases originated, for example, from the use of fossil fuels in machines or vehicles, or chemical reactions derived from production processes, fall into this category.
  • Indirect Emissions (Range 2) – We speak of indirect emission when talking about greenhouse gases that are not produced by the company, but produced by its energy supplier. These emissions correspond to GHGs associated with the consumption of electricity and/or steam generated by third parties and depend on the amount of energy required by the company and the energy source of the network that provides it.
  • Other Indirect Emissions (Range 3) – There are also other types of indirect emissions that are attributed to products and services purchased by the company, which also generated emissions when they were produced, although their measurement is extremely complex, due to the great volume of products and services used by companies and the difficulty of knowing the emissions of these products. In this category we can include the transport of workers, supplies or even waste, as well as air or land travel for work reasons, among others.

In addition, companies can also consider in their measurements the CO2 absorptions that occur directly, offsetting their emissions. These types of emissions have to be measured, but not as part of an inventory, although you can report the offsets you have made.

Digital Reports: A Much Needed Support

Performing an accurate measurement of measurements involves collecting, processing and analyzing much data. That takes time. Thinking about the optimization of this factor and its relationship with productivity, there are a series of technological solutions that allow the work to be carried out more simply and efficiently.

Regardless of the industry and objectives in question, these solutions are based on the requirements of international standards and cover a myriad of aspects. They can also be developed according to specific requirements, facilitating the work of the areas involved, minimizing risks, allowing compliance and monitoring of the established measures and helping to solve the enormous challenge of reconciling the productivity of a company with its environmental commitments.

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Antonio Frieser

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