Stay focused on the emissions, not the shampoo

A lot of work is going into carbon lifecycle analysis. This is a process that determines a product’s upstream and downstream emissions, as well as the emissions from using it.

To work out the carbon footprint of a car from a lifecycle point of view, for example, you need to know the emissions from its manufacture, use (i.e. fuel and maintenance) and disposal. And the emissions involved in the manufacture and disposal of machinery involved in manufacturing and disposing of the car. Err…

The Carbon Trust, BSI British Standards and Defra recently launched a carbon lifecycle standard called ‘PAS 2050’ that, judging by its test cases, is aimed at fast moving goods. Earlier this week the WRI said that it is developing a product lifecycle standard to complement its benchmark ‘GHG Protocol’ for measuring corporate emissions. I’m not sure about the detail of either standard but they appear to address essentially the same issue, with the WRI’s standard having an international scope.

This is all great news for ethical consumers, who rely on labels when choosing products. It might help manufacturers understand carbon in their supply chains. But ultimately it is not an effective tool for managing carbon emissions and I don’t think it will be widely implemented.

The main reason is that it is impossible to get right. There is no clear boundary for a lifecycle analysis. For a car, do you include ‘amortised’ emissions from building the roads it drives on? What about garage mechanics driving to and from work? Direct emissions from refineries that produce petrol? If you manage to come up with a consistent process for determining the footprint’s scope, it will exclude different proportions of emissions for each product.

It is also too much effort. Aside from the scope issues, the effort involved in doing a lifecycle analysis could be much better spent elsewhere.

Plus, to manage carbon in the economy, we don’t need to know product-level carbon footprints at all. If only direct emissions are measured and regulated, the costs of regulation are passed to customers and supply chain carbon footprints are reflected in prices. If the regulation includes a cap, the increase in price will be determined by demand elasticity. If people are unwilling to reduce their consumption of a carbon intensive product, its price will show a large increase.

Essentially, it’s about staying focused on the emissions, not different brands of shampoo.

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