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What is Carbon Footprinting?

What is Carbon Footprinting and Why Does it Facilitate Effective Energy Management?

Costs to the environment, generated throughout your company’s production process, can be assessed in different ways, just as its financial costs can be. One of these methods, probably the most convenient and yet a still exact one, is the carbon footprint.

The carbon footprint concentrates on one environmental impact factor only – this factor is the climate related emission, measured in one unit, kilogram CO2-equivalent. As I illustrated in my article on the parallels of carbon footprinting with cost accounting, there are several advantages in connection with the use of a single score method – the results are comparable, for example, and well-tried cost accounting methods can be applied.

What Is Your Functional Unit?

So now we know the unit, but we still haven’t heard what, exactly, the carbon footprint measures. First of all, it is a question of the functional unit. Don’t get confused here – results do have a unit, the above mentioned kg CO2-equivalent. The functional unit, though, is different. It is a question of scale. Do you want to measure your entire company’s carbon footprint, or just that of one product, or the footprint of one production site? There are also carbon footprints for persons and countries. Depending on the scale, a different functional unit applies. Let’s say our company is building houses and we want to analyze our product, i.e., one house. Our functional unit, in this case, would be a house. When you build a house, there are several steps to take. All of these steps consume energy and generate emissions. Some of them consume energy directly, such as the excavator for the basement or the construction site’s crane. Other steps consume energy indirectly, e.g., the production of construction materials and their transport.

Climate Friendly Construction – Use of Wood

As you can imagine, one of the best construction materials, environmentally speaking, is wood. Wood is renewable, and wood is a good tactic for carbon sequestration. During its growth period, a tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transforms it into complex organic lignin molecules. This way, the carbon is stored in the wood, until it rots or burns.  When you use wood as building material, the carbon absorbed from the atmosphere by the tree is captured in your house. As long as it doesn’t burn down, of course. Assuming the wood comes from a forest where new trees will grow after logging, which is most probably the case in most of the “developed world”, wood construction is a means of active climate protection. Even more so, when you engage woodworking companies like Janssen Holzbau, that has its wood construction professionally analyzed for carbon footprint. The company runs its sawmill on renewable energy from hydro power and dries its wood with a proper sawdust oven. The sample roof truss that was analyzed for its carbon footprint, for instance, generates 9.9 metric tons of carbon emissions during fabrication and processing, while sequestering 64.6 tons of carbon for the longer term. That means, 54.7 tons of carbon are stored in the roof truss, just because of its wooden construction material.

Life Cycle Emissions

When we calculate a carbon footprint, we also need to look at the life cycle. At all stages, emissions are relevant – raw material extraction, production, use by the client, and disposal – and all the transport involved between the stages. For a house, and the customer’s use of it, the carbon footprint is the energy consumed by its inhabitants for heating and cooling, for living or working, and the resulting emissions.

From Carbon Footprinting to Energy Management

To sum up, a profound knowledge is needed – a knowledge of all involved processes, including how much energy they consume, and how many emissions they create. Once you have completed the carbon footprint analysis, you know pretty much everything about your production. Most importantly, you have a good data source for optimization of potential. You know which materials you can replace, which supplier you should take to task and which inefficient process you should optimize, maybe also which outdated or oversized machine you should better get rid of. Hence, a carbon footprint can be the perfect base for sophisticated energy management.

Cutting carbon emissions and reducing energy consumption are not only compatible with each other, but also require the same interventions 99 times out of 100. Likewise, they will save you good money, especially as energy gets more expensive. Even though in times of an omnipresent financial crisis it is hard to imagine, the next boom will eventually arrive and when it does, the price of oil will very probably go through the roof – along with the prices for other sources of energy since the demand for alternative energy will increase correspondingly.

Article image shows a wooden roof truss picture by Mangrove Mike (cc flickr)


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