Writers: Saana Keränen, Sanni Hujanen, Kamil Wojcik
This essay explains the basic structure of carbon footprint, how to perform simple calculations and dive into complexity of it. Further it continues to explain the carbon compensation, importance of it possible risks related to greenwashing with examples. Last part is dedicated to actions any individual can take and challenges the common assumptions. Essay ends with a study case.
The carbon footprint measures our impact on the environment based on the use of carbon dioxide. One might think that a term like this would have been developed by someone truly interested in helping the climate, but that isn’t necessarily true. It is likely derived from the term “ecological footprint” that became popular in the ’90s when Professor William Rees used it in his paper Environment and Urbanization. As the discussion about and interest in environmental issues grew, people started seeing the damage big oil companies were causing to our planet. In an attempt to better their reputation, and to shift some of the blame to consumers, British Petroleum started a campaign. They hired public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather who then came up with the term carbon footprint, a way of showing individuals how their everyday choices were responsible for heating the globe. (Solnit, 2021)
The concept of the carbon footprint originates from the older idea of ecological footprint. The ecological footprint refers to the total area of land needed to sustain an activity, product, or population, whereas the carbon footprint talks about tons of CO2 emissions per year. (Chait, 2009)
The carbon footprint is a complicated matter that rarely offers one simple solution. Although most of the world agrees that greenhouse emissions must be reduced, often there are also arguments against these actions.
The most common argument against cutting carbon emissions is simply that the science concerning the topic is wrong or uncertain, or that the effect humans can have, is minor. Over time though, these arguments have become less and less useful since research about climate change and co2 emissions impact has become even more clear. Often the true reason for arguing against the fact is the fear that these cuts will affect business and the general way of life people are used to. It can be easy to find individual facts that make it seem that human actions have no impact but looking at the bigger picture the science on the topic is actually very clear. When for years critics claimed that climate change is not real or not caused by humans, ironically now the argument often is that the damage is already too great for human actions to make a real difference. (Chait, 2009)
In 1972 the United Nations Environment Programme was established in Stockholm. UNEP was the first global level environmental governance. It helped bring awareness of the topic to the public in a way that had not been seen before and laid a foundation for the many environmental agreements to come.
Today, perhaps the most widely known of these agreements was established in 2015. The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change that was adopted by 196 parties and its main goal is to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement works in 5-year cycles of increasingly ambitious climate action plans called NDCs (Nationally determined contributions) that each partaking nation is to submit. Countries communicate actions that they will take to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions as well as actions to build resilience to adapt to rising temperatures. (UNFCCC, 2015)
Although there is a long way to go to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, the years after its entry into force have already shown progress in low-carbon solutions and new markets. Lower carbon transport and power solutions are where the trend is most noticeable and early adopters have found many new business opportunities in the field. According to calculations, by 2030, zero-carbon solutions could be competitive in sectors representing over 70% of global emissions. (UNFCCC, 2015)
When only looking into different types of agreements, promises and even new inventions one might get a reasonably positive picture of the whole topic. However, the reality is that the crisis is still very deep and even if all the promises made today were met that still would not be enough to reach the ultimate goal. The world desperately needs new solutions and true commitment to the cause.
The consequences on human lives and our planet are prominent and will only get worse over time. WHO estimates that already today Climatic changes cause over 150,000 deaths annually, mainly caused by increasing incidents of severe weather. Some other major impacts on the environment include shrinking water supplies, changes in food supply, because of certain areas becoming unusable, and geographical changes including rising sea levels. (Cairoli, 2021)
To calculate the carbon footprint of for example a product in the shop, the process starts with gathering all the information about the whole supply chain of the product. The goal is to estimate emissions that result from fossil fuel burning to process raw materials and produce the goods. Raw materials are basic materials that are used to produce for example goods or energy. These can be crude oil, cotton, coal, iron ore, wood, water, etc. All transportation, heating or use of electricity, etc. influence the emissions of goods or services consumed and they must be included.
These calculations are very difficult and it’s nearly impossible to do the precise calculations on very complex supply chains that companies are dealing with nowadays.
A simple example could be the carbon footprint of average electricity use in Finland.
The total consumption of energy in Finland is 82,79 bn kWh (World Data Info). Which per capita on average is 14969,12 kWh. The emission factor for electricity consumed in Finland is a minimum of 56 grams and a maximum of 99 grams with an average of 82 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour (Fingrid OYJ).
14969,12 x 82 = 1227467,84 grams of carbon dioxide which is an average of 1,2 tonnes of CO2 per person per year.
When creating emissions that cannot be really reduced, companies started to compensate for them.
Emission compensation from Sitra’s dictionary:
The purchasing of emission reduction units to compensate for emissions caused. The funds are used, for example, to support the use of renewable energy or sustainable use of land and forests in developing countries across the world. The aim is to prevent climate change.
It’s like killing a panda bear and paying someone to protect it. The problem is usually that the company is the tool, but the decision is in customers’ hands. The more we consume the more greenhouse gases are created. In the traditional economy, it’s within the company’s interest to increase consumption, therefore companies champion it with marketing campaigns while covering the true problem with carbon compensation. There should not be any doubt that emission compensation is necessary and should be part of every government, business, and even household’s plan. Although that is not enough, and the current system needs change. Capitalism as we know is reaching its tipping point and it needs radical changes. Consumption itself needs to be drastically reduced, but that’s a long process, instead, solutions like moving from product to service economy or circular economy need to be more encouraged and supported by governments.
One example of the compensation process includes protection of the forest and planting new trees. Trees as they grow, trap, and store CO2 in their trunks, roots, leaf, and branches. Then transfer it to the soil, from where some CO2 is being released eventually as they decompose. It’s important to remember that carbon dioxide is needed for photosynthesis. Plants cannot function without it and with a help of sunlight CO2 is turned into oxygen and glucose. The commonly used term “carbon sink” to call forests means that it’s consuming more carbon than it’s creating. While CO2 is released during the burning of fossil fuels carbon dioxide is never again trapped and stored in fossil fuels. As result, it has a negative impact. (Metsä group)
As mentioned before, compensation is not the absolute solution. It won’t let people reach the emission targets. With a current western lifestyle, it’s just not possible. Here comes the issue related to greenwashing.
“Defeat device” installed on VW and Audi cars between 2009-2015 is a classic of greenwashing. Most know that VW cheated about the emission produced by the diesel engines. What has really happened? VW advertised a breakthrough technology that allowed to run diesel engines with low emissions, while the reality was different. The defeat device mentioned before could detect the situations when the engine was being tested. That switched the car into a sort of emergency/low-power mode and affected in low emissions during testing. When the test was over, the car switched to normal mode. That affected in higher emission up to 40 times! The complexity of this issue makes it clear that this was a planned operation and not a mistake. Customer trust was broken, and millions of cars returned. It did raise awareness of the problem and followed with testing other mobility companies. Results were mixed.
“We have totally screwed up,” said Michael Horn, the boss of VW America. There isn’t much to say in this situation except what VW did – admit cheating. It’s a good example to show that greenwashing doesn’t pay off in a long run, but it takes place to a very far extend. VW resulted in the company’s first quarterly loss for 15 years of 2,5 billion euro in October 2015. As of 1 June 2020, the scandal had cost VW $33.3 billion in fines, penalties, financial settlements, and buyback costs. (Frankfurt Reuters)
Bad habits die hard. Another misleading campaign is BP’s initiative to install solar panels on top of their gas stations. Oil giant tried to convince the public of its low-carbon energy products and rebrand with the name “Beyond Petroleum” while maintaining over 90% of spending in oil and gas. That was really brave attempt of Brittish Petroleum to try to pull this off.
Lara Robertson from goodonyou tells how fast fashion brands like H&M or Uniqlo are trying to appear “green” by creating sustainable clothing branches, while not providing enough information about the supply chains. After the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster H&M joined with other companies forces to address health and safety issues in Bangladesh, while this action was a success, just a few years later company failed a promise to pay a living wage for its 850 000 workers in Bangladesh by 2018. The efforts taken by the companies need to reflect the actions. The promise is not enough. (goodonyou)
Scopes of emissions
For many countries, it’s mandatory to measure emissions on yearly basis. World Resources Institute developed Greenhouse Gas Protocol to create a framework that would bring more reliable and understandable results. GHG protocol divided emissions into three scopes. It’s number one of GHGP’s FAQ.
Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from owned and controlled sources.
Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy.
Scope 3 emissions are all indirect emissions that occur in the value chain of the reporting company, including both upstream and downstream emissions.
In practice it means that in the first scope measured is direct burning of fossil fuels, running cars, a production that is happening on site. That also includes other gases, for example, methane or ammonia. The second scope focuses mainly on electricity usage, which doesn’t create emissions on site. While it hugely depends on the power plant type and fuel it uses. Renewable energy is the cleanest, while coal is the least clean. The third scope emissions are usually the largest part of a company’s missions. Often overlooked and ignored. These include all the other indirect emissions like purchased goods and services, transportation and distribution, waste generation, employee commuting, business travel and more. It’s important to remember that currently companies are required to calculate the first and the second scopes, while the last one is not mandatory. The reason for that is because emissions are created from activities not owned or controlled by the company. According to Carbon Trust research, for most companies, third scope emissions count from 65% to 95% of the company’s carbon impact. While World Resources Institute argues that by addressing greenhouse gasses emissions in scope 3, companies can create opportunities and boost their competitive advantage. As climate change issues are becoming imperative for businesses and governments are creating new policies that are going to drive new initiatives to reduce emissions in all three scopes.
Actions one can take – avoid, minimize, compensate
The average Finn has a carbon footprint of 10,300 kg per year (10.3 t CO2e) (Sitra 2018) and The Finnish Climate Change Panel divides human emissions into four main categories: mobility (30% of emissions), housing (25%), nutrition (20%) and other goods and services (25%) (Thurén 2021, 18-19).
In reality, the average Finn’s carbon footprint is even higher. Countries in the Paris Climate Agreement, such as Finland, only calculate and report emissions that are produced in their geographical area. According to studies by the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, about half of the greenhouse gas emissions of average Finn’s consumption are generated abroad. Thus, the current calculation method does not give a true picture of the climate impact of our consumption. (Knuuti & Niskanen 2021.)
The carbon footprint of Finns should be reduced to 2,500 kilos by 2030 and below 1,000 kilos by 2050 in order to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees (Thurén 2021, 20). So that means we need to radically reduce our emissions. In fact, we are even forced to reduce our emissions to zero. Niklas Kaskeala, Compensate’s Director of Accountability, mentions in the Studio NO_GO’s IGTV series that it would be important for everyone to remember an easy mantra: avoid, minimize, compensate. This applies to both consumers and businesses. (Studio NO_GO 2021.)
One should first find out own (company or every day) carbon footprint and think about everything that could be avoided and made emission-free. What emission elements could be left out altogether? After that, the things that cannot be avoided should be affected – the aim is to choose the lowest-emission alternatives. Lastly, all things that cannot be avoided or minimized should be overcompensated. This applies to both individual purchases and the entire carbon footprint. (Studio NO_GO 2021.)
In order to come carbon neutral, we should get rid of the most harmful and useless emissions. In her book Kaikki kuluttamisesta (2021), Julia Thurén says that rising consumption expenditure is a major reason why consumers’ carbon footprint is now 12 percent higher than in year 2000 (Thurén 2021, 18). Also, in terms of population, Finns are one of the nations with the greatest burden on the climate (Knuuti & Niskanen, 2021).
Avoiding emissions is the most effective strategy to lower the carbon footprint and fight the climate crisis. Every euro spent produces greenhouse gas emissions and consumes raw materials. Thurén mentions as a rule of thumb that on average, every euro spent emits half a kilo of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (Thurén 2021, 19). So, one important way is simply to avoid consumption.
Of course, it’s not that simple. The reasons for consumption are coded deep into us. Consumption is not just about exchanging money for a product or service; it is a multifaceted experience where we are part of a community. By consuming, we seek security and a sense of control in our lives. Consumption also brings comfort, excitement, or a sense of belonging. If one wants to start consuming less and more thoughtfully, one should try to identify what need the consumption meets. (Thurén 2021, 131.)
Of course, not all consumption can be avoided. The next way to reduce emissions is to try to choose the lowest-emission options possible. Again, this applies to both individuals and companies.
At the individual level, a lower-emission choice may be, for example, vegetarian food instead of meat, traveling by train rather than car, favouring carpools and buying second-hand clothes or furniture, lowering room temperature, reducing the size of living space or choosing a domestic product instead of a foreign product.
Helsinki-based start-up company Spark Sustainability has created an application called Carbon Donut, which helps individuals find alternatives to reduce emissions and measure positive effects on the environment. Using the application begins with measuring your own carbon footprint, after which the application provides information on, for example, more everyday climate-friendly options and shows how everyday choices affect our emissions. Applications like this make low-emission choices a little easier because the information is easily accessible.
(Over)compensate – because going carbon neutral is not enough
Whenever we create emissions, we should commit to removing at least an equal amount from the atmosphere.
In the Studio NO_GO episode, Niklas Kaskeala from Compensate compares the amount of carbon dioxide to a bathtub. Kaskeala urges you to think of the atmosphere as a bathtub and carbon dioxide as water in the bathtub. The bathtub faucet has been on for decades and the water is already flooding over the edges of the bathtub, causing damage. Mankind’s solution is to turn the tub faucet a little smaller, slowing the consequences of destruction. However, it does not yet solve the problem: as long as the water flows into the tub, destruction will take place. The faucet must therefore be completely closed. Yet, we still have a problem: the water level in the bathtub is alarmingly high. Next, the plug should be removed, and the excess water drained off. (Studio NO_GO 2021.)
The “safe level” of carbon dioxide, 350 ppm, was surpassed already in 1987 (Compensate). The more carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere, the more heat is bound to the atmosphere and the climate warms (Tekniikan Maailma). So, carbon neutrality is not enough – we should go carbon negative as soon as possible in order to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than what a product, service or action causes. That insures actual climate impact.
There are many providers of emission compensation in Finland, so one needs to be careful not to fall victim to green washing. Emission compensation providers are hardly monitored, so the consumer must do some research in order to find a reliable operator.
Yle Kioski journalist Timo Korpi lived a year with minimal climate emissions and tried to reduce his own carbon dioxide emissions to a sustainable level of 2,000 kilos. Korpi documented his journey and made it into a video series “Ilmastouutiset” (=Climate News) on YouTube.
In the first episode of the series, Korpi mentions that usually emissions of 2,000 kg will be filled, for example, from driving with a private car or taking one trip to Thailand. In his case, emissions from housing would normally be 1.5 tonnes. During the experiment, Korpi gave up meat, dairy products, rice, greenhouse grown vegetables, warm showers, unnecessary consumption, private cars and flying.
Korpi succeeded in his goal and during the year his emissions were 1969 kilos. In heating, Korpi saved around 2 tons, as he lives with his partner in a half-smaller apartment than the Finns on average. They also lowered their room temperature a couple of degrees. Korpi also saved 0.5 tonnes by not using any hot water in the shower during the year, and 1 tonne in food emissions by eating climate-friendly food. Korpi saved 2 tonnes in traffic emissions by not flying and radically reducing private car use. In the consumption of goods and services, Korpi reduced by about 2.5 tonnes, as he spent money during the year mainly on necessities. (Ilmastouutiset 2019.)
Korpi’s experiment shows well how difficult the goal of annual emissions of 2,000 kilos is, which is considered sustainable for the planet. For many, such sacrifices may seem extreme, and I don’t know how many would be willing to give up flying, lower the room temperature or especially give up warm showers. However, Finns should reduce their carbon footprint to less than 1,000 kilos by 2050 in order to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees.
Whose responsibility? Individual versus companies and society
An individual can reduce their own CO2 emissions to a more sustainable level up to a certain point, but companies must also take responsibility. However, according to Markus Terho, the director of Sitra’s Sustainable Everyday Life project, it is not worth putting the system and the individual against each other. Terho sees that both are needed: emission reductions in the first decade can be significantly accelerated by individuals’ choices that play time to change slower-to-implement systems – such as reducing heating or traffic emissions. Terho also emphasizes that on a large scale it would be more beneficial for large masses to do little than for a small group to do much. (Thurén 2021, 20.)
If the media constantly raises the question of how the small actions of individuals matter, attention will not be paid to where there really is power – to companies and politicians. It is difficult for an individual to be a change if the whole system encourages something else. It is disadvantageous for the climate crisis that the capitalist system encourages companies to grow as big as possible and sell their products as much as possible. Companies have not had enough incentives not to consume natural resources and fossil fuels. (Thurén 2021, 55.)
According to Markus Tervo, companies know how to talk to the consumer, because they already have a ready-made relationship with the consumer. Thus, companies could make sustainable choices in a new way familiar to people. A good example of this is the shopping cart’s carbon footprint used by the S-ryhmä and Kesko, which allows consumers to easily monitor the impact of their purchases. Terho also emphasizes the role of sports clubs and organisations. For example, a sports club could begin to establish a norm for carpool rides, or to eat vegetarian food at sports club events. (Thurén 2021, 70.)
Incentives of this kind would also be appropriate at the Proakatemia. For example, could our community have incentives to come to school by bike instead of car, encourage students to travel by train instead of flying, or to choose vegetarian food more often than meat? Our community could focus specifically on encouraging rather than pushing.
Ordinary people work in companies and organizations and change starts with the individual. Another positive change is that consumers have begun to demand more and more sustainably made products. Consumers can ask questions about where products are bought and what their emissions are. The store then asks the supplier, and the supplier asks the production. Then in production, they may have to think about the whole thing for the first time.
So, everything affects everything: individuals, companies, and political structures rely on each other. Individuals are consumers who can encourage and hold companies accountable, but individuals can also start driving change from within companies. (Thurén 2021, 77.)
Leading by example – social media maintains a high-emission lifestyle
Our current way of life causes large climate emissions. On social media, this big carbon footprint comes up when pictures of barbecue steaks or a palm beach on a holiday trip are published.
A recent Swedish research article “Climate irresponsibility on social media” (2021) highlights that non-climate commentary updates are also part of the climate debate. Sharing images of trips abroad, barbecue steaks and fast fashion on social media gives the high-emission lifestyle visibility and thus maintains existing fossil structures.
Greenpeace has also started a European Citizens Initiative where they want to change the law to achieve a historic ban on fossil fuel advertising and sponsorships. According to Greenpeace, fossil fuel companies are a threat to our health and the health of our planet. Greenpeace compares fossil fuels to tobacco: burning fossil fuels kills millions of people prematurely every year. On their website, Greenpeace suggest that it’s urgent to stop advertising fossil fuels, as well as private transport powered by fossil fuels. Their aim is to get at least one million signatures from Europeans during the year and if this goal is achieved, the European Commission must take the initiative. (Greenpeace 2021.)
Change is happening. Maybe in the future we’ll see fewer ads and social media posts glorifying high-emission lifestyle. In the meantime, we can influence our own publications and think about whether it is admirable to highlight for example air travel or shopping.
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Energy consumption in Finland
Fingrid OYJ Real time emission estimate
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Metsä group case: What is a carbon sink?
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Sitra, Carbon Footprint of Average Finn, March 12, 2018
Solnit, R. (2021, August 23). Big oil coined ‘carbon footprints’ to blame us for their greed. Keep them on the hook. Retrieved from theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/23/big-oil-coined-carbon-footprints-to-blame-us-for-their-greed-keep-them-on-the-hook
Studio NO_GO 18. COMPENSATE. IGTV video series. 6.10.2021. https://www.instagram.com/p/CUsNdMLgj6R/ Read 9.10.2021.
Tekniikan maailma. 2021: Raportti: Ilmakehän CO2-pitoisuus nousee tänä vuonna 50 prosenttia korkeammalle kuin esiteollisina aikoina. 9.1.2021. https://tekniikanmaailma.fi/raportti-ilmakehan-co2-pitoisuus-nousee-tana-vuonna-50-prosenttia-korkeammalle-kuin-esiteollisina-aikoina/ Read 9.10.2021.
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Timo Korpi – Yle Kioski. 2018. Ilmastouutiset. YouTube video series. https://youtu.be/_esOUb8C7hE Watched 9.10.2021.
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