General concerns over the symptoms of climate change, as the Earth’s medium temperature continues to rise, have pushed forward the analysis of the quantity of greenhouse gases produced by human activity. Both the services and the products that we use every day have an impact on our environment, from their production phase to their use and disposal. The analyses of their footprint comprehend the whole life-cycle of the goods, and the results are communicated to the consumers through specific labels shown on the product in question. In other words, the impact assessment is commissioned by a company to a third party, and it is then translated into an environmental certification (“verification statement”). The logic behind their use is to provide transparent information to the consumer and to improve the image of the company itself in its relationship with external stakeholders. The development of this kind of statements also integrates the effort of companies in pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals (Bolwig & Gibbon, 2009; Wiedmann & Minx, 2008). The aim of this article is to, in the first place, take a closer look at the evolution of the Product Carbon Footprint (PCF) at a European level and, in the second place, to provide some background on the adoption of this good practice by developing countries.
In general, PCF is known as the quantification of greenhouse gas emissions generated during the whole life-cycle of the product, from the extraction and transformation of raw materials to the end of its life.
“The introduction of the Carbon Footprint of product permits to know which of these life cycle phases are mainly critical in terms of GHG emissions, and allows to develop effective reduction interventions of the same. The detailed knowledge of the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted has above all an important economic return, tied to the understanding of how the costs and the competitiveness of products can change when the market price of C02 varies.” (Aequilibra website, n.d)
Apart from improving the efficiency of the life cycle of products, it is easy to understand that PCF is a useful tool to create market competition for environmental standards, and to raise awareness among customers. For a better understanding of the topic, Mr. Daniele Pernigotti has been interviewed. With over 15 years of experience in the field of environmental certification, he is the Italian delegate of the working group for the revision of the international standard ISO 14067 (Carbon Footprint of Product). The topics that have been discussed with Mr. Pernigotti reflect the intention of this article: they concern the main steps for the standardization of the PCF policies at a European level, and the international cooperation for the adoption of PCF, including the efforts made by developing countries.
Regarding the first point, the need for a European common methodology for analyzing the product carbon impact emerged in the conclusion of the Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan in 2008. From this point, the European Commission launched a study on PCF, whose purpose was to review existing methodologies and to relate them with future policies. Then, on the basis of the collected information, a Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) project for developing a harmonized environmental footprinting methodology (including carbon emissions) was initiated (Policy Background: 2016). Subsequently, the so-elaborated method was tested during a three-years pilot phase, from 2013 to 2016. The results of this pilot programme have underlined the complexity of the holistic approach of PEF: while the wide range of impact of the product, from carbon to marine littering, represented a main strength, such a general view involved both lack of participation by the civil society, and a difficult system to communicate to the public, with some fields being more specific than others (Vincent-Sweet et al., 2017).
At a global level, the International Standard Organization (ISO) is working towards the improvement of the regulation issued in 2013 as concerns the calculation and communication of PCF. Once ready, the new specification (ISO 14067) will allow the international community to abolish the national standards in order to adopt the new global ones. This will also contribute to suppressing the localisms and to simplifying the communication process.
Furthermore, with regards to the international cooperative movement for PCF, it is possible to observe a raising moment of sharing expertise. Indeed, many Carbon Footprint programme operators are present worldwide: these are the national working units on PCF research; they have different logos and credibility. While, for example, France, the UK and Germany have already elaborated much more complex programmes, developing countries are also trying to keep up with the regulation. In fact, although carbon footprinting has been designed by “Western” countries, the contemporary supply chain has become international.
Nevertheless, the lack of specific knowledge on GHG emission and the pressure from foreign markets are causing some insecurities among producers from emerging economies. They fear that new requirements for carbon accounting could hinder the attractiveness of the market due to the lack of technology, and could work as a trade restriction for export operations (Plassmann et al., 2010). In any case , an example of a growing network for spreading the practice of PCF can be found in the Asia Carbon Footprint Network, consisting of 14 member organizations in South-East Asia and North-East Asia, which is co-organized by the Thailand Greenhouse Gas Management Office and the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). Another initiative, such as the Carbon Footprint International, wants to bring together many national programmes in order to amplify their voice. At the moment, the Italian, Japanese and Korean operators are part of the platform.
In conclusion, both producers and consumers are responding collectively to the issue of global warming. As CO2 emissions are having a huge impact on the public in terms of communication and understanding of the problem, the carbon emission calculation is evolving to cover the international supply chain and various product categories. New methodologies are being tested at regional, national, and international level (ISO), with the latter dimension becoming more and more prominent as the international markets grow. Despite the lack of a common standard, industrialised countries especially have already developed complex frameworks for carbon assessment, opening up the scale of impact categories that can be taken into account. Indeed, successful policies toward GHG emissions will constitute a milestone for the elaboration of further good practises against climate change.
Benedetta Mantoan is from Italy. After a bachelor degree in Japanese Studies at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, she is now a recent MA graduate in “Politics, Society and Economy of Asia” at Leiden University, The Netherlands. Her strong interest in East and Southeast Asian culture is combined with a genuine passion for sustainable development and nature conservation.
- Bolwig, S., & Gibbon, P. (2009). Emerging product carbon footprint standards and schemes and their possible trade impacts. Danmarks Tekniske Universitet, Risø Nationallaboratoriet for Bæredygtig Energi.
- Carbon Footprint of Product (n.d.) Aequilibra Website, Services. Retrieved from: http://www.aequilibria.com/en/services/carbon-footprint-of-product/
- Policy Background (2016, June 20). European Commission Website, Environment. Retrieved from: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/eussd/smgp/policy_footprint.htm
- Plassmann, K. et al., Methodological complexities of product carbon footprinting: a sensitivity analysis of key variables in a developing country context, Environ. Sci. Policy (2010), doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2010.03.013
- Vincent-Sweet, P. & Milà i Canals, L. & Pernigotti, D. (2017, June). Review report of the Environmental Footprint Pilot phase. Retrieved from: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/eussd/smgp/pdf/2017_peer_rev_finrep.pdf
- Wiedmann, T., & Minx, J. (2008). A definition of ‘carbon footprint’. Ecological economics research trends, 1, 1-11.