Time to think more about carbon

Andrew Gaved
Editor at Large, Lyrical Communications

Can you remember the first time you had a conversation about carbon footprints, either your own, or your company’s? I wouldn’t mind betting it was a least a decade ago.

For some of you, it could have been nearer 20, but I suspect that this applies to those of you who were more enthusiastic about environmental matters. If this was you 15 or so years ago, you would probably have been in the minority in your networks. Indeed, you might have been the sort of person the more sceptical friends or colleagues might have labelled ‘the green brigade’ or even an ‘eco-warrior’.

If that does describe you, you’d probably have been interested in a book I have just taken off my bookshelf – a book written back in 2010 called How Bad are Bananas?

This book, subtitled The Carbon Footprint of Everything, goes into some detail about the volume of CO2 it might have taken to produce a wide range of items. I have to confess that when I bought it, it was out of a sense of curiosity, rather than a serious intent – the sort of book which makes you raise an eyebrow, rather than engage in major soul searching.

The fact that the book chooses to cover both serious products – a pair of shoes, for instance which has a lifetime footprint of 15 kg of CO2 – alongside more whimsical ones such as a Mr Whippy from an ice cream van, which is reckoned to have a footprint of 500 grammes of CO2 –– perhaps shows the intention from the author to prompt  further thought rather than to encourage activism.

However, the chapter on the biggest emitters – ranging from the World Cup, in 2010 estimated at 2.5 million tonnes of CO2, to data centres, which at the time was 130 million tonnes CO2 – was clearly designed to provoke debate. The fact that a decade later this data centre figure had nearly trebled to 320 million tonnes is enough to give all of us pause for thought.

But why am I telling you all this now dear insight reader? I am sure that many of you will know precisely why – because the calculating of carbon footprints, or more accurately embodied carbon and operational carbon, is no longer the preserve of the eco warrior but is becoming a key objective for businesses involved in buildings and infrastructure. I am taking a wild guess that that is most of you.

Those of you working in the supply chain of commercial developers, for instance, might have already been asked for calculations on embodied carbon for the various materials and products to be used in construction.

The BREEAM takes into account both embodied and operational carbon, and I believe is consulting on combining the two measurements. But, as many companies are finding, the operational carbon is a lot easier to measure than the embodied carbon.

I recently interviewed Mitsubishi Electric’s Martin Fahey shortly after he had finished finalising the company’s first Environmental Product Declarations for the UK and he made it clear that the calculations involved were challenging – taking in everything from distribution mileage to get to the customer, to the electricity used in the production facilities.

Given that this was for a company of some scale, we can assume that for SMEs, collating the necessary numbers will be even more challenging. Martin has some interesting conclusions from the exercise around what is the main carbon ‘culprit’ in the life cycle of a heat pump, which you will soon be able to read on the elemental site (elementaldigital.co.uk).

To conclude, my message is that while currently there is nothing written into the building regs about embodied carbon, the consensus from the ‘top’ of the supply chain, wrought from conversations with clients, consultants and architects is that this element of the carbon footprint should now be an essential part of everyone’s thinking around getting to Net Zero.

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