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What is a carbon footprint?

Carbon footprints are becoming increasingly common. More and more businesses are calculating and sharing their carbon footprints. But what exactly is a carbon footprint? What does it measure and why was it developed?


Put simply, your carbon footprint shows your impact on the planet. It includes all the greenhouse gases you emit. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases such as hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons are all classed as greenhouse gases as they all warm our atmosphere.


Many of the activities we undertake release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

A person wearing hiking boots walking along muddy trail. There is a puddle in front of them and there are green bushes along the side of the path.
Photo by PNW Production

You will have an individual carbon footprint, your household will have a carbon footprint, your business will and, if you are a member of a sports or social club that will have a carbon footprint too.

The only carbon footprints we ever really talk about, or measure are those of large organisations and businesses.


Your carbon footprint is the total of all your greenhouse gas emissions, not just carbon dioxide. These emissions can come from many sources including travel, events, products or the delivery of services.


A carbon footprint’s unit of measurement is carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂e).  This is because carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas. By using the measurement unit CO₂e it reduces the complexity when calculating and communicating your environmental impact and allows for easier comparisons between footprints.


The other greenhouse gases, methane, nitrous oxide and the fluorinated gases are converted into their carbon dioxide equivalent which is based on the amount of heat they trap in our atmosphere. This is known as their Global Warming Potential (GWP). It is important to include other greenhouse gases to ensure that we are reporting a full and transparent picture of our emissions.


To ensure carbon footprints are calculated in the same way in every country, a set of accounting and reporting standards called the Greenhouse Gas Protocol has been developed. The reporting standards outline how carbon footprints should be calculated ensuring every country adopts the same agreed accounting methods.


The Greenhouse Gas Protocol provides a framework for you to follow which breaks your greenhouse gas emissions into three different categories, which are called Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3; giving you a complete picture of your business or even an individual product’s impact on the environment.

Here in the UK the government publishes a set of conversion factors annually and we use these to calculate our carbon footprint.



Scope 1 emissions

Scope 1 emissions are greenhouse gases emitted directly from your business. As you can see in the image above this scope focuses on your company facilities and company vehicles. Scope 1 emissions are referred to as direct emissions as they are emissions which you have direct control over. These emissions are released from your use of fossil fuels which include gas, petrol and diesel. Scope 1 emissions are easy to calculate. All the information you need should be easily accessible in your fuel bills.


Scope 2 emissions

Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions caused by greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere during the generation of the electricity, steam, heating and cooling you use for your business operations. These greenhouse gas emissions are not directly released by your business. They are the emissions you make indirectly when the energy you purchase is produced on your behalf. They are the result of the energy you have purchased. The greenhouse gases are released by the energy companies you choose to supply you.


Scope 3 emissions

Scope 3 is the largest category. It covers the value chain either side of your business. Emissions from your suppliers producing the goods you purchase and the emissions from your customers using your product, or service, and are all included in this Scope. It is a huge category and can be quite complex to calculate. However, it is a really important Scope and spending time looking at this Scope will benefit your business and help you reduce costs and emissions. Scope 3 gives a full view of your environmental impact and is vital to understanding your true carbon footprint.



Find your baseline

Your carbon footprint provides a baseline for your business, showing your environmental impact over a certain time frame which you can improve from. Once you have calculated your footprint you should look at ways to reduce your emissions and then recalculate your footprint annually to keep track of your emissions and the progress of your reductions. Most businesses choose to use their last financial year to calculate their initial footprint. Using the same reporting period as your financial year allows you to cross reference areas of high expenditure. Emissions and expenditure often go hand in hand. Lowering one will lower the other, it’s a win-win situation.



Benefits of calculating your organisation’s carbon footprint

There are many benefits to calculating the carbon footprint for your business and even for individual products. For me the environmental benefits are motivation enough but calculating your carbon footprint can bring other benefits to your business. It shows you where you can make cost savings as carbon hotspots are often financial hotspots. It can help you streamline your processes, cut waste and enhance employee engagement as increasingly people want to work for greener and more ethically responsible businesses.

There are also marketing benefits of becoming greener. Customers are increasingly looking for environmentally friendly options and sharing your journey to becoming more climate-friendly can be used as a unique selling point or a benefit of your product or service or it can also drive customer loyalty. Understanding your carbon footprint is also becoming increasingly important when selling to large companies, the public sector and the third sector.

Public sector organisations are now starting to include climate and social considerations when awarding contracts. They are increasingly looking at a potential supplier’s environmental and social impact.  Weighting is being applied to both these areas as well as the traditional quality and value of goods and services. In many public sector tender opportunities, the environmental and social impact weighting is currently quite low, because they are still introducing these additional considerations and are keeping the weighting low whilst suppliers become familiar with these new requirements. The earlier you embrace these areas and start to measure your impact the better. It offers a potential competitive advantage right now. If you can show that you have calculated your carbon footprint, are reducing your emissions, and are supporting social programmes or initiatives, you are increasing your chances of winning tenders and building a good working relationship that could help win future work. Being aware of your carbon footprint can help you get your foot in the door so to speak, so it's becoming more urgent for businesses to start this work now. Don't get left behind!


The image shows my book Sustainable Business: uncover the benefits of embracing environmental and social responsibility. The book is being held up in the air and next to a light bulb.
Sustainable Business. Photo by Folk and Tale

This blog post has been adapted from my book ‘Sustainable Business: Uncover the Benefits of Embracing Environmental and Social Responsibility’ which is available to buy here.


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