How to Calculate a Carbon Footprint – Part 1

Jan 1st, 2010 | By | Category: Climate Change

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What is a Carbon Footprint?

A carbon footprint, or corporate greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory, is an accounting of a company’s operational emissions. The most common GHG is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is why greenhouse gases are often referred to as “carbon”; however, there are six different GHGs that make up an organization’s carbon footprint. They are

  Greenhouse Gases   Common GHG Sources
  Carbon Dioxide (CO2)   Combustion of fuels
  Methane (CH4)   Livestock and landfill emissions
  Nitrous Oxide (N2O)   Manure and sewage management
  Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)   HVAC and vehicle refrigerants
  Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)   Primary aluminum and semiconductor manufacture
  Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)   Insulation in electric power transmission equipment

 At the most basic level, the process of measuring a carbon footprint involves collecting a company’s full operational data and multiplying each source by an associated emissions factor to generate a relative number, or carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). The full process is outlined below.

How much CO2e is in a…

  What’s the equivalent?   Amount of CO2e
  1 U.S. Household Annually   20 Tons 
  1 Car’s Average Operation   6 Tons 
  1 Cow in One Year   6 Tons 
  1 Acre of Pine Forest Carbon Storage   1 ¼ Ton
  38 Propane BBQ Cylinders   1 Ton
  1 Barrel of Oil   ½ Ton
  1 Gallon of Gas   20 Lbs
  1 Day of an Office Computer   1 Lb
  1 Newspaper   ~ 0.5 Lb

Carbon Footprint Process

The process for measuring a carbon footprint can be broken down into two phases:

  1. Defining the inventory scope.  
  2. Quantifying the emissions.

For an organization conducting its first Corporate GHG Inventory, the process can take anywhere from a few weeks to a full year. Contrary to most people’s thinking, the time investment in a carbon footprint has more to do with the quality and availability of data than the size of the organization. With the help of savvy in-house staff or a trusted, experienced consultant, the process can be shortened significantly.

Below is the 7-step process every company should follow when conducting a Corporate GHG Inventory.

 For more information on this topic, see these related articles:

About the Author

Kyle Tanger is the founder of ClearCarbon, experts at measuring, managing and monetizing carbon. He has more than 14 years of carbon and energy expertise, having managed the complex greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory efforts of several multi-million dollar companies with combined GHG emissions totaling well over 150 million tons. In 2007, Kyle led supply chain carbon footprint analyses for Wal-Mart’s supply chain initiative pilot in conjunction with the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), and he continues to work closely with Wal-Mart on its Sustainability Index. Kyle has performed dozens of carbon lifecycle assessments for individual consumer products as well as larger supply chain analyses.

Image: Simple Sunset by Ilco, Izmir, Turkey

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