August 16, 2022

Carbon Footprints: How to Promote Transparency and Prevent Greenwashing

Carbon Footprints: How to Promote Transparency and Prevent Greenwashing

By Caleb Smith
|July 12, 2022

Signs on the supermarket shelf show the carbon footprint of a box of fruit smoothies

Signs on the supermarket shelf show the carbon footprint of a box of fruit smoothies. Picture: the wire

As many people were stuck at home in the early stages of the pandemic, backdrops of orange ash skies, flash flooding events and record heat waves made it harder to deny the weather. Last year, Sixth IPCC Report It warned that global temperature rise will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius without radical policy intervention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is now a large body of literature showing what types of interventions may have a significant effect. For example, a 2019 United Nations International Resource Panel The report showed that consumerism has overtaken world population growth as the main driver of resource depletion and greenhouse gas emissions. But even as climate awareness reaches new heights, consumer economies in wealthy Western nations are only just beginning to make the shift toward a sustainable future. Consumers are pushing companies to be more transparent by supporting more environmentally conscious brands.

Enter the carbon footprint of the product. Carbon footprints are a step in the right direction for climate-conscious consumers who want to hold brands accountable for their greenhouse gas emissions. While standards and verification methods for how to determine these footprints have matured over the past decade, insights into how best to communicate footprints are emerging. Without greater clarity about how consumers understand and use footprints, what do they really mean? How can consumers and brands truly leverage their carbon footprint towards climate goals that prevent a 1.5 degree global temperature rise?

In 2018, Christoph Meinrenken of the Columbia School of Climate created a tool called the Carbon Catalog that helps correlate the carbon emissions associated with each stage of a crop’s life cycle. This free interactive data visualization tool shows the carbon footprint of hundreds of commercial and consumer products, making it easy for everyone to understand the carbon emission levels of everyday products. The tool’s inventory includes 866 products from 145 companies and uses CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project) data from 2013 to 2017.

While CDP is one of the international carbon accounting organizations, similar life cycle assessments can be calculated with guidance from other agencies. There are three leading standards that have been collectively informative in creating international standards for carbon footprint calculations: the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, ISO 14067:2018 and PAS 2050:2011. Failure to comply with these standards by companies that claim to have serious computing efforts now represents a major credibility risk, and savvy consumers and investors recognize it as greenwashing.

It’s also worth noting that the Securities and Exchange Commission recently began the process of proposing legislation to require large corporations to disclose their climate risk. This proposal has been in the works for a long time and was drawn from lessons learned in 2010. If enacted, the legislation would be a major climate victory for the Biden administration. Companies will be held accountable for a number of new filing requirements, including greenhouse gas emissions. Scope 1 emissions (those generated directly by company-owned or operated facilities) and Scope 2 emissions (byproducts of energy purchased and consumed by the company) will be standard for reporting by all companies. However, Spread the scope 3 (arising from the activities of assets owned or controlled by upstream or downstream partners of the reporting organization) reporting is more complex, and There are many exemptions and weaknesses. However, if the SEC’s proposed rule is not struck down by the courts, the impact will be profound. If companies are legally required to track and disclose their emissions, they will have the information they need to engage consumers with an honest climate platform.

The pandemic has created a clear shift towards environmental consumerism. Although it has consumer costs It has increased by 11% compared to the previous year Since the beginning of the epidemic, 52% of respondents in A PwC Global Survey 2021 He said that they are more environmentally friendly in their purchases compared to six months ago.

There are several ways that companies can capitalize on this growing profit. The Carbon Catalog visualization tool presents several strategies that companies are using to reduce emissions, and the data shows that several companies have made significant progress in reducing emissions from their products. Some companies have already started using their product carbon footprint tools, some have opted for carbon labels on their products, while others have strong online and in-store customer education platforms. In the absence of a policy on how to provide product carbon footprint information, we are sure to see a proliferation of disclosure methods. The problem is that without a unified format of how footprints are communicated, consumers may not know what to look for, how to decipher environmental impact, or even where to find it. Likewise, where and how information is made available raises questions about fairness and intentionality. If product carbon footprint information is only available online, the audience is likely to be whiter and wealthier in the population. If it’s just a physical label on the product itself, with limited space, clarity can sacrifice accessibility.

Multilateral industry coalitions are forming to meet this challenge. True, because the speed of action must be greatly increased. The latest update of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report states that greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 if global temperature increases are to be limited to 1.5°C. The report also presents pathways across all sectors to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Promising developments for better industry coordination include Coalition on Materials Release Transparency Framework (COMET).An initiative created by the Columbia Center for Sustainable Investment, the Paine Public Policy Institute at the Colorado School of Mines, RMI, and the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat. COMET guides member organizations to better integrate greenhouse gas reporting and climate finance.

To evolve from free carbon transparency, policymakers should start with laws that provide financial incentives for companies that use carbon accounting to meet science-based climate goals. Companies are taking this opportunity to take advantage of many consumers’ new climate awareness, but that doesn’t mean they have well-developed plans to reduce their environmental impact, nor a strong consumer education program. While other policy options that penalize high-emitting companies still have a role, incentives to reduce emissions and set standards for consumer education may be more politically palatable in the near future. Several federal carbon tax bills have been introduced in recent years, but action is still pending in Congress, despite estimates from a Pew Research Center poll. 73% of US adults support taxing corporations based on emissions. Tax incentives can reward industry leaders and encourage others to develop their own greenhouse gas reduction, carbon accounting and customer engagement strategies. Ideally, such an incentive would be the first step in a multi-year program leading to mandatory requirements.

The difficult task now is to ensure that carbon footprints and education about them, like the Carbon Catalogue, do not become a greenwashing trend and instead become normal parts of business. When this happens, compliance will be more difficult for companies and enforcement will be realistic for government agencies.

Caleb Smith is a 2022 graduate of Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program and a former intern at the Earth Institute.


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