RGA Engineering y Projects

The Intangibles of the Carbon Footprint in Sustainability

The definition of sustainable development is one of the few approaches that within its simplicity contains a vast complexity. This is, “Development that ensures the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission, 1987). Still, after 30 years of enunciation, many people continue wondering how to start this path to reach the long-awaited goal.

It is understood that a project is sustainable when the social, economic, and environmental axes are intertwined; that is, it generates benefits for the community ( stakeholders ), it is financially feasible, and in turn, friendly to the environment. Now, how can you delineate something like this?

From a business perspective, covering the social axis implies meeting the needs of the different actors that take part in the process: employees, customers, providers of goods and services, surrounding communities, among others. Addressing the environmental axis corresponds to the empowerment of best practices that minimize contamination and the generation of solid waste from operations. All these requirements are absorbed by the economic axis, which must guarantee the profitability of the activity.

Is it cheaper to pollute? 

Regardless of the scope of the economic activity carried out by the company, its operations affect the environment, to a greater or lesser extent according to its size, since its processes have liquid, gaseous and/or solid discharges.

To avoid an irreversible affectation of these discharges on the environment, the States imposed maximum permissible levels for the “quality of water and air” emitted by the companies. Such restrictions implied the installation of additional equipment for the processing of these currents, some with the consequent increase in operating costs. Based on this, many companies began to proclaim themselves environmentalists, but what about CO 2 emissions , do they consider themselves?

Unlike air quality, the emission of carbon dioxide was not appreciable by public opinion despite calls from the scientific community, until several years after various international environmental regulations were implemented. This was mainly because a cloud of black smoke, or dust, is visible and directly and instantly affects the health of those around it, while CO 2 cannot be observed. Today, global warming and the consequent climate change resulting from the concentration of CO 2 in the atmosphere is the greatest threat facing humanity.

The measurement of the carbon footprint ( see more ) arises as a response to the growing concern of public opinion regarding the phenomenon of climate change, focused from the corporate point of view on showing the sustainability of companies. Technically, for this measurement the direct and indirect emissions of the corporations in the development of specific products, or their total operations, of the following Greenhouse Effect Gases (GHG) are counted: carbon dioxide (CO 2 ), methane ( CH 4 ), nitrous oxide (N 2 O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF 6 ).

From a regulatory point of view, there is a wide variety of standards available for estimating the carbon footprint. For the Organizational approach, the ISO 14064 standard is usually used, while for the Product approach, the PAS 2050 (British) and ISO 14067 standards are used.

Regardless of the approach used, the estimation of the carbon footprint is based on accounting for the consumption of fuels or services, requiring a standardized conversion to calculate its CO 2 equivalent . Such value is called Emission Factor . Among some of the activities considered in this study are: combustion in fixed equipment (boilers, turbines, emergency plants), and mobile (private vehicles, cargo), purchase of electricity, steam, raw materials, finished product dispatches, etc

Once the conversion to CO 2 has been carried out, the contribution to the footprint of the different activities can be appreciated, allowing to compare items that until now were totally dissimilar (eg, boiler consumption vs. finished product transportation), giving this an x- ray transversal of the company’s operation and providing greater tools to management when making investment decisions. This is the first strength of the carbon footprint.

One of the success stories in the use of the information supplied by the Corporate Carbon Footprint in managerial decision-making is that of DHL Nordic Express (1) . Despite the fact that standard 14064 does not require the incorporation of emissions from the company’s third parties, DHL included its entire value chain, thereby improving its ability to detect cost-saving opportunities. As a result of this, the company established as a requirement that each associate submit information on the vehicles used, distances traveled, fuel efficiency and background data, this data being used in the development of a strategy for performance evaluation, and selection. , from the provider.

It should be noted that the effective implementation of this tool increases, in turn, the operational control of the company’s activities since it receives as inputs (inputs ) all the reports ( outputs ) of the different aspects of the business, allowing concentration and review. additional data that could have been ignored by the reporting department. This is the second strength of the carbon footprint.

Last but not least is the issue of energy efficiency. If an organization is at the dawn of sustainability, defining the best strategies to undertake energy saving measures can become very expensive; however, through the application of the Corporate Carbon Footprint, the preliminary roadmap can be indicated for the mitigation of emissions – and therefore reduction of energy consumption -, which at a moderate cost can indicate the studies and investments required (  third strength). Additionally, there are opportunities for Carbon Bonds, both at the CDM and Voluntary Market levels, which is always an attractive opportunity to promote this type of project.

Energy efficiency does not necessarily imply the implementation of renewable technologies, although it can always be considered at a later stage. Fundamental is the attention to existing consumption, prioritizing the energy sources with the greatest impact in terms of emissions.

In conclusion, when the definition of sustainability emerged at the end of the 20th century, it focused mainly on the control and minimization of polluting practices. In the 21st century, everything can be translated into CO 2 , focusing on the mitigation of GHG emissions. Doing nothing and contaminating can be seen as more profitable in theory, but in practice the opposite is the case, since it is those companies committed to the environment that have an organizational culture, as well as development and operational control, which demonstrates that this so-called “profitability by contaminating” arises because it is not known how to monetize those investments. Only what is known and controlled can be improved. Which way do you want to go?


  1. World Business Council for Sustainable Development. GHG Protocol-A Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard. Page 34 ( see more )

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