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Footprints without Borders: creating a framework for harmonising product carbon footprinting schemes in East Asia

Posted by Martin Barrow | 5 February 2016 | Viewpoint

How do you make a meaningful comparison between one footprint and another?  A new project is being undertaken by Carbon Trust to help harmonise product carbon footprint schemes for increased consistency and improved international comparability.

Chinese Manufacturers Association and Carbon Trust launch new product carbon footprint and labelling scheme for businesses in Hong Kong

Launch of the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong (CMA) carbon footprint and labelling scheme for businesses in Hong Kong, developed with the support of the Carbon Trust.

Product carbon footprinting is not a philanthropic act undertaken by companies to save the world. It has real commercial returns. It helps businesses to understand how to optimise the design and creation of their products or services, prompting them to improve efficiency in their own operations and within their supply chains.

By certifying and labelling their products, businesses are also more able to influence their customers. This can be done in a variety of ways: by demonstrating a product’s green credentials; enhancing a brand’s reputation for sustainability; differentiating a product from competitors; or meeting the procurement requirements of corporate and public sector customers.  These are often business-to-business customers rather than consumers.

Real world data challenges

In an ideal world measuring a product carbon footprint would be easy. You would take high quality data detailing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with every individual stage of a product’s life cycle, then just add all the numbers together.

Unfortunately real life is never that simple. There is almost never as much information available as you would like. Plus there are the practical challenges of time, money and available resources that mean you can’t factor in every small, relatively insignificant detail that might have some bearing on the final calculation. So you have to make simplifications and assumptions, with the understanding that the final footprint will be sufficiently accurate for its intended use.

But if everyone is simplifying and assuming, then how do you make a meaningful comparison between one footprint and another?

Making a meaningful comparison

Finding answers to this question has led to the development of a number of practical solutions around the world. International standards have been created. Calculators and tools have been produced to share common assumptions. And a variety of distinctive national and regional schemes have been set up with common methodologies and verification methods. A number of those schemes also come with labels, to help readily communicate a verified product carbon footprint.

However, multiple attempts to solve the same issue in a nationally-appropriate manner have resulted in inconsistency and incompatibility internationally. At present many countries in the world have established their own product carbon footprinting and labelling schemes, largely operating independently with their own guidelines and individuals quirks.

This is a problem because trade is global and greenhouse gas emissions don’t recognise national borders. The climate deal coming out of Paris highlights the fact that there is an urgent need for countries work together take action on reducing emissions. However, taking action is made a lot more difficult when measurements from different countries are incompatible.

Overcoming this barrier is precisely the purpose of a new project being undertaken by Carbon Trust to help harmonise product carbon footprint schemes in East Asia. This is being done with the Asia Carbon Footprint Network (ACFN), working with partner schemes in Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Thailand, plus other ACFN members.

Carbon labelling in Asia: harmonising approaches

The individual achievements of carbon labelling schemes in Asia are impressive.  For example, both the Korean and Thai schemes have approved approximately 1,800 footprints each, involving around 200 and 350 companies respectively. These footprints have come from a range of industries in the consumer, service and industrial sectors. However in practice, results from these schemes may not be comparable with each other due to the way schemes have adapted these standards to fit local conditions and preferences. 

The ultimate aim of this project is to produce a framework of practical steps for eco-labelling schemes to help foster closer working relationships, encouraging the sharing of infrastructure and best practices. The likely impacts of greater harmonisation of approaches will be assessed for each scheme, balancing implementation effort with the potential benefits.

There are a range of pathways and actions outlined to achieve this objective, which in practice involve sharing to varying extents: scheme organisation, marketing, sales, scheme methodology, boundaries, product category rules (PCRs), tools, calculators, data, verification methods, recognition principles and labels.

Benefits for business

Closer alignment and sharing of best practice is the best route to opening up market demand and achieving high volumes of footprinting, increasing the scale and impact of each national-level scheme. In turn this provides businesses with the critical mass of data needed to make the substantial energy and resource efficiency savings throughout the supply chain.

One of the biggest benefits for businesses from increased consistency and collaboration is improved international comparability, which is useful for both multinationals seeking to footprint across many countries and local companies that want to sell into overseas markets. The benefit for scheme operators would be to reduce participation costs for businesses through sharing infrastructure and operational activities, helping to increase volumes and enhance the value derived from labels.

This project is designed to act as a stimulus to accelerate the extent to which schemes in Asia work together. It will also influence the design of schemes being developed outside of Asia, such as a scheme the Carbon Trust is currently working on in Brazil.

When the Carbon Trust started developed the first international standard for product carbon footprinting back in 2006 the goal was to establish a common framework that catalysed real change across markets. A decade on and we are seeing those markets edge closer towards a tipping point where carbon footprinting and labelling can help accelerate the move to a sustainable, low carbon economy.

The exciting thing about this project is that slowly but surely we are starting to see that happen. Bringing together international schemes should benefit companies, their customers, and the climate. We look forward to helping that happen.

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