Carbon Footprint: What is it?
8th October 2021
We’re all familiar with the phrase Carbon Footprint, but what does it actually mean? Technically, carbon footprint refers to the amount of carbon dioxide which is released into the atmosphere due to the specific activities of an individual, an organisation, or within a community.
As the UK aims to reduce these emissions in line with the 2050 target of achieving Net Zero, find out more about the carbon footprint and how GEAB can assist in achieving your greener goals, working with you to support compliance and prepare your organisation for a sustainable future.
Who coined the term carbon footprint?
The concept of a carbon footprint evolved from the earlier idea of the ecological footprint, developed by Canadian ecologist, William Rees, and Swiss-born regional planner, Mathis Wackernagel, at the University of British Columbia in the early 1990s.
An ecological footprint was the term used to signify the total area of land required to sustain an activity or population. It included environmental impacts, such as water-use and the amount of land required to enable food production.
In contrast, a carbon footprint is usually expressed as a measure of weight, as in tons of CO2 or CO2 equivalent per year.
Why are businesses aiming to reduce their carbon footprint?
The UK government set legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 under the Climate Change Act 2008.
Initially, this saw the UK pledge to make an 80% reduction to carbon emissions by 2050. In June 2019, secondary legislation extended that target to at least 100%.
UK Business and industry account for approximately 25% of emissions, resulting in a raft of legislation to ensure organisations across all company sizes and industry sectors operate sustainable processes.
UK energy policy can be complicated and greatly impact company finances, with substantial penalties in place for non-compliance. The specialist consultants at GEAB work across the UK, offering clarity across business consumption and navigating your path through vital legislation.
At whatever point you start on your way towards Net Zero, businesses will require clearly defined and measurable, data-driven targets. The specialist advisors at GEAB work to determine the scope of your business emissions, collecting energy and carbon data which will identify the worst offenders within current processes and practices within your business.
Which sectors will be most affected by net zero?
The Transportation industry; Energy (electricity generation from fuels including coal, oil and natural gas); Business (electricity); and Residential (heating) are the four highest emitting sectors in the UK. Combined, these sectors account for around 78% of our current emissions.
What are the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions?
The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have been steadily decreasing over the past 30 years, although levels have continued to rise globally.
Carbon dioxide makes up the bulk of six major greenhouse gases named under the Climate Change Act 2008, which are Methane, Nitrous oxide, Hydrofluorocarbons, Perfluorocarbons and Sulphur hexafluoride.
Carbon is principally produced by burning fossil fuels, with the main sources for producing other greenhouse gasses including industrial processes and waste management, such as agriculture and landfill sites. These accounted for approximately 19% of all UK emissions in 2018.
Climate change requires businesses and individuals to take ownership of their contribution, a commitment which is best illustrated by The Paris Agreement, adopted in December 2015, following the United Nations Framework Convention.
The Paris Agreement
The Paris Agreement, sometimes referred to as The Paris Climate Accords, was a positive turning point for putting environmental action to work on a global scale. This provided a pathway for individual accountability towards collective climate goals, with transparent monitoring and regular reporting.
The world leaders of 195 nations agreed to focus on substantially reducing their individual global greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to cap the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, while pursuing the means to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.
This global focus reminds us of our individual responsibility to reduce our negative impact on the planet. Both as organisations and individuals, we are able to decrease our carbon footprint with simple everyday choices which determine the amount of carbon we release into the atmosphere, which is dependent on a huge number of factors.
Taking our daily activities into consideration and reviewing our processes in line with the government deadline, from manufacturing and producing, packaging and transporting, the more energy required, the larger the carbon footprint of that process. Whether that relates to becoming more conscientious about the food we consume, to reviewing the methods used within our business to deliver goods, or starting by making simple changes, such as switching to a green energy supplier, GEAB work alongside UK government initiatives, including the UK Business Climate Hub which supports SMEs to halve their emissions by 2030, bringing them in line with the UK’s 2050 Net Zero target.
Is carbon neutral the same as Net Zero?
Net zero refers to achieving a state of carbon neutrality when carbon dioxide emissions are effectively reduced to zero. This can be achieved by balancing emissions of carbon dioxide with its removal through carbon off-setting, or by eliminating emissions associated with transportation, energy production, agriculture, and industry.
Carbon off-setting schemes are a highly effective approach to investing in environmental projects to offset our carbon emissions, from planting trees to supporting communities to develop sustainable solutions which will deliver ongoing clean-energy solutions.
In the UK, around 18% of the total carbon emissions relate to the practices of commercial businesses, while smaller businesses can find themselves unsure about how to make changes and whether to adopt new, less environmentally-damaging technology.
Making a more conscious effort to be aware of our impact, and starting by making small lifestyle and workplace changes, can make a considerable difference towards hitting our environmental targets. If you’re looking for ways for your business or organisation to make sustainable changes or reach net zero, have queries over the kinds of new technologies which may benefit your business, or require basic advice on concerns within your industry, GEAB can help your company to reassess your current processes, and manage the implementation of more effective, and energy efficient operational methods.
How do you work out carbon dioxide emissions?
Whether you have specific targets towards environmentally-friendly practices you are planning to adopt within your business, or you’re looking for specific ways to reduce your carbon footprint, GEAB provide advice and support tailored to the exact requirements of any size business or industry sector.
The first step is to gain an in depth understanding across your energy usage, and what this means for your carbon reduction goals, as well as for your profit margins. Having relevant, measurable data across your current resources allows for analysis within specific areas where improvement could provide a huge improvement to the rest of your sustainability strategy.
GEAB provide full energy efficiency audits, producing reports into your energy consumption and water systems, along with full analysis, in depth information and practical recommendations to assist your organisation to take appropriate action in lessening your environmental impact, and continually improving your energy efficiency levels, while building performance, and lowering annual overheads.
How can your business analyse consumption?
GEAB provide a range of services, from helpful, up-to-date advice to specific technologies, designed to help your business gain invaluable insight into your energy and water usage, ensuring you have the information you need to make informed decisions which balance your next steps in line with other important business objectives.
The GEAB team consist of expert energy managers, product specialists and skilled installers, offering end-to-end management, with the experience and tools needed to identify opportunities which enable your business to save money and cut carbon by reducing your energy and water consumption.
GEAB tailor product specification and design services to meet our clients energy and water-saving needs, working with trusted suppliers and established brands to provide innovative, high quality products, and maintaining direct relationships.
Reducing emissions is not only vital to achieving Net Zero target, but as eco-conscious consumers are increasingly more likely to purchase from businesses who adopt greener processes, and brands with an established reputation for sustainability and eco-friendly policies, taking these steps is vital to the longevity of your operation.
According to research carried out by Energy Saving Trust, 87% of UK adults are either extremely concerned or somewhat concerned about climate change. Businesses which are able to be transparent in showcasing their efforts towards greener practices will both retain and attract customers to their brand.
What changes can my business start to make?
Starting with low-level changes across the business can still have a considerable impact, and it’s always a good idea to get staff onboard to discuss ideas they may have, and appoint people to take ownership of greener processes.
• The most obvious change you can make, is to switch to renewable energy sources to overall reduce emissions.
The specialists at GEAB are able to search the market and deliver the best prices for your sector, overseeing the switch, and on-hand to implement Smart systems to review savings.
• Reduce travel to lessen the carbon footprint of your business.
From remote and flexible working, to utilising video meeting rooms, review the percentage of your staff who actually need or wish to be based within your offices full-time. Not only does this have a positive environmental impact, but is increasingly popular among the workforce, showing a respect for work/life balance which reflects a positive and progressive workplace culture, with a considered approach to environmental concerns.
Review travel within your commute, travelling by train if required, and implementing car share and bike schemes across your organisation.
If you run a transportation fleet, allow data collection to analyse usage and make your fleet more efficient, and consider alternative fuel or implementing EV. GEAB specialists are available to discuss transportation reviews across a wide range of sectors.
• Increase the efficiency of your office lighting.
Changing lighting sources to more energy efficient options such as LED can make a big difference with long lasting effects, and try to ensure natural light is fully utilised, as many offices are unnecessarily lit.
There is also options such as installing motion sensors which automatically ensure lights are off when areas are not in use.
• Optimise heating and cooling systems.
Implement temperature controls to ensure heat and air conditioning systems are timed correctly and according to outside air temperatures.
• Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
Sustainable procurement can help to engage employees in reducing the consumption of items which have an associated carbon footprint in terms of manufacturing and transportation, such as water, paper, food and drink, laptops, phones and packaging.
Purchasing recycled paper or refurbished I.T. equipment and phones is a simple way to reduce carbon footprint. If your company has a large supply chain, ensure sustainability is implemented throughout the organisation.
The roadmap to Net Zero
The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently reported that while we have a viable pathway towards Net Zero emissions by 2050, this will require unprecedented levels of transformation in the production and transportation of energy, as well as in its global use.
The world’s first comprehensive energy roadmap shows government actions to rapidly support clean energy supplies and reduce fossil fuel, which will create millions of jobs, support economic growth and keep Net Zero targets within reach.
The report is the first comprehensive study of how to achieve a Net Zero energy system by 2050, while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, universal access, and enabling economic growth.
It sets out cost-effective and economically productive approaches towards a clean, resilient energy market dominated by renewables like solar and wind instead of fossil fuels.
Government climate pledges to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C could fall short of what’s necessary to bring energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050, even if current targets are achieved.
‘Our roadmap shows the priority actions that are needed today to ensure the opportunity of Net Zero emissions by 2050 – narrow but still achievable – is not lost. The scale and speed of the efforts demanded by this critical and formidable goal – our best chance of tackling climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5 °C – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,’ said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director.
‘The IEA’s pathway to this brighter future brings a historic surge in clean energy investment that creates millions of new jobs and lifts global economic growth. Moving the world onto that pathway requires strong and credible policy actions from governments, underpinned by much greater international cooperation.’
Building on the IEA’s energy modelling tools, the roadmap sets out milestones in the global journey to Net Zero by 2050. These include no further investment in new fossil fuel supply projects and no further investment decisions for new unabated coal plants. By 2035, there will be no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars, and by 2040, the global electricity sector will have already reached net-zero emissions.
In the short term, the report describes a Net Zero journey requiring the immediate deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technology, combined with a major global push towards accelerated innovation.
The pathway calls for annual additions of solar PV to reach 630 gigawatts by 2030, and those of wind power to reach 390 gigawatts. Together, this is four times the record level set in 2020. For solar PV, it is the equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day.
A major worldwide push to increase energy efficiency is also an essential part of these efforts, resulting in the global rate of energy efficiency improvements averaging 4% a year through 2030 – three times the average over the last two decades.
A transition of such scale and speed cannot be achieved without sustained support and participation from communities, whose lives will be affected in multiple ways.
‘The clean energy transition is for and about people,’ said Dr Birol. ‘Our roadmap shows that the enormous challenge of rapidly transitioning to a Net Zero energy system is also a huge opportunity for our economies. The transition must be fair and inclusive, leaving nobody behind. We have to ensure that developing economies receive the financing and technological know-how they need to build out their energy systems to meet the needs of their expanding populations and economies in a sustainable way.’
By 2050, the energy world looks to operate completely differently. Global energy demand is estimated to be around 8% less than today, but it serves an economy more than twice as big, and a population of a further 2 billion people.
Almost 90% of electricity generation will be generated by renewable sources, with a combination of wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70% of this figure. The remainder comes from nuclear power.
Solar is set to become the world’s single largest source of total energy supply. Fossil fuels fall from almost four-fifths of total energy supply to slightly over one-fifth. Fossil fuels that remain are used in goods where carbon is embodied in the product such as plastics, in facilities fitted with carbon capture, and in sectors where low-emissions technology options are scarce.
‘The pathway laid out in our roadmap is global in scope, but each country will need to design its own strategy, taking into account its own specific circumstances,’ said Dr Birol. ‘Plans need to reflect countries’ differing stages of economic development: in our pathway, advanced economies reach net zero before developing economies. The IEA stands ready to support governments in preparing their own national and regional roadmaps, to provide guidance and assistance in implementing them, and to promote international cooperation on accelerating the energy transition worldwide.’
The full report is available for free on the IEA website, along with an online interactive form which highlights some of the key milestones in the pathway that must be achieved over the next 30 years in order to reach Net Zero emissions by 2050.
For insightful advice on how to reduce harmful carbon emissions across your business, GEAB work with organisations throughout the UK, and are able to take your call today from 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday, on 0800 084 3477.