Carbon Monitoring and Measurement

If the aim of carbon policy is to reduce or stabilize CO2 in the atmosphere, then the fulfillment of that policy ultimately depends upon an accurate determination of what is known as carbon footprint.

Carbon footprint, a term which we will use routinely in discussions of carbon mitigation, refers to the net contribution of a person or organization to the overall carbon balance of the planet, more specifically the contribution of atmospheric CO2. By stating a carbon footprint, a carbon emitter is establishing a baseline for determining reductions, and, where carbon caps are already in effect, is indicating the degree to which carbon management goals have been met.

A carbon footprint is normally expressed in terms of tons of carbon or carbon dioxide, and the amounts in question may appear astonishing to those unaccustomed to undertaking such measurements. A single household in a developed nation may emit several tons of CO2 in the course of a single year, while a large manufacturer may emit millions of tons. It follows that if you're trying to reduce your carbon footprint, some fairly significant physical actions have to take place somewhere.

Greenhouse gas emissions contributing to one's carbon footprint are largely though not entirely the consequence of burning fossil fuel. Certain industrial processes, such as the fermentation of starches and sugars to produce alcohol, generate a great deal of CO2 as a byproduct, and certain agricultural activities can release large amounts of CO2 from the soil. Methane emissions also exert potent greenhouse effects, effects that are much more potent per molecule than is the case with CO2, though there the volumes on a global basis are far less and so is the overall impact. Combustion of fossil fuels is unquestionably the main culprit.

One's carbon footprint is fairly inconstant, fluctuating from day to day and even from minute to minute, and so, in the interest of establishing a benchmark for meeting reduction or stabilization goals, it will normally be measured only once a year or at some other stated interval. Few attempt carbon monitoring on an ongoing basis.

So how do you form an estimate of your carbon footprint?

The whole area of measurement methodology is unfortunately steeped in controversy, and measurements accepted by one financial or regulatory organization may not be accepted by another. And that is largely because of disagreements as to what should be measured, that is, how inclusive or restrictive the measurement process should be.

If it were simply a matter of measuring the amount of fossil fuel directly consumed by an entity over a given time span, the task would be simple, but much of one's carbon footprint is arguably the result of indirect emissions—as, for instance, when one purchases electricity from a utility which itself is emitting CO2 to generate that electricity, or when one is utilizing public transportation such as airlines where the motive power is provided by fossil fuel. And indeed electrical consumption and air travel commonly figure in the more widely used formulas for computing carbon footprint.

Some would argue, however, that an individual footprint may be actually much larger than would be indicated by the relatively small set of measurements used in the more popular carbon calculator formulas. For example, packaged food produced from the yields of mechanized agriculture results in abundant carbon emissions, and, to the extent that one is nourished by such food, one may be said to be a sort of tertiary emitter. Interestingly, the same could be said for the consumption of supposedly "clean" biodiesel produced from plantation palm oil, which is sometimes presented to the public as being carbon neutral. It too is the product of mechanized agriculture and factory processing, and much carbon is emitted in its production. And the fact that old growth forests, which are generally more efficient carbon sinks than palm plantations, may be felled to accommodate such plantations may make the fuel even more carbon positive.

In fact, almost any industrial product one purchases has its own carbon footprint associated with it, and the question then becomes who will be regulated for carbon compliance, the party producing it or the party consuming it? Or both?

We will not attempt to address these philosophical issues in any detail here, but will merely indicate the major measurement and certification standards and the organizations propounding such standards as well as those who can assist organizations in making measurements and gaining certification.

Measurement Perspectives

Just as a carbon footprint can be construed positively or negatively as a set of allowances or offsets (see section on carbon finance), so can the measurement and monitoring process be seen from two opposing perspectives. On the one hand, one can measure emissions with a view to determining compliance to stated objectives or mandates—that is, merely limiting emissions. On the other hand, one can measure the ability of projects or activities to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or, at the very least, slow its buildup. Here one's aim is not simply limiting emissions and restricting the damage, as it were, but actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

An activity that results in no net gain, that is, which removes as much carbon as it produces, is said to be carbon neutral. One that results in actual net reductions is said to be carbon negative.

The trade in carbon offsets is largely predicated on such carbon neutral or carbon positive activities, and here one is often less concerned with measuring emissions than in characterized what are known as carbon sinks. These are entities which have the capacity to absorb or capture CO2 or to transform it into various carbon compounds which do not exhibit greenhouse gas effects.

Predictably the techniques for measuring the capacity and activity of carbon sinks are rather different from those for measuring emissions.

Deeper into Monitoring and Measurement

So how do you actually establish your carbon footprint for purposes of compliance or certification?

First determine what regulatory or legal constraints apply to your organization and what measurement standards relevant legal authorities rely upon. Consult the carbon policy section for information on applicable regulations and legislation.

If you are participating in a voluntary carbon reduction program, find out the requirements of the certifying organization. The Chicago Climate Exchange is by far the largest such organization in the U.S. but it is not the only one.

Use the appropriate carbon calculator or calculators. Certifying organizations normally specify the carbon calculator to be used.

Consult our directory of monitoring and measurement consultants. Obviously, consultants cost money, but the reputable ones will guarantee the transparency of their work and will make certain that the reports that they generate will pass muster with relevant organizations.

Read the subsection entitled Initiating the Measurement Process.

Finally, keep abreast of industry efforts to establish cross-cutting and unifying measurement standards because these will provide the basis for truly fungible carbon financial instruments and will ultimately make the measurement process far easier and more transparent.