Measuring the carbon footprint of a product or operation is an essential first step toward reducing emissions from that product or activity. John Downie of Carbon Coach explains what is involved.

In the case of a product, measuring emissions accurately requires a full life-cycle analysis.  This can be a highly complex investigation as it includes not just emissions due to assembly or manufacture of the product on a single site, but also the upstream growth, extraction or manufacture of inputs, downstream usage and eventual disposal of the product.

An activity or organisation assessment is significantly simpler as by definition it is limited to a single site or collection of sites as defined by an organisation’s boundary.  Upstream and downstream supply, usage and disposal still need to be considered, but they are more easily defined and are often optional rather than essential considerations.

Measuring your organisation’s carbon footprint consists of four basic steps:

  1. Deciding what is the boundary for your organisation assessment
  2. Deciding which emissions you are going to include in your assessment
  3. Gathering activity data for each source
  4. Applying conversion values to translate levels of activity into quantities of emissions


For a small organisation this is relatively simple to define, especially for a services business.  It is best achieved by drawing a diagram representing the physical boundaries of your business site and then considering the point at which you will take account or not take account of goods and services flowing over those boundaries.

Emission Sources

This typically is set to include the emissions produced on site as well as in vehicles owned or used for business purposes.  It should also include the emissions embedded in goods and services consumed in the activities of the organisation, such as electricity consumption, air travel, paper consumption, purchase of IT equipment, freight and so forth.  In a first assessment it may be necessary to screen emission sources for their significance. By using sample data or estimations, it is possible to work out whether collecting a full set of data for a particular activity is warranted.

Data Collection

Once the boundary and emission sources are defined it is a matter of collecting data for each nominated source within that boundary.  If full data doesn’t exist, then extrapolations or estimations can be applied, provided they can be done reliably and consistently enough to show variations in emissions from that particular source from year to year.  If such data is not available, an activity may have to be excluded from the assessment until more accurate determinations can be achieved.  If this is the case, the exclusion and reason should always be disclosed in the final report.

Conversion and Summation

Once activity data is collected it is a matter of multiplying them against appropriate emission factors so that units of activity are converted into units of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.  Emission factors for fuels and electricity are published by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.  For other sources, no single publication provides a comprehensive list of emission factors appropriate to Australia so a much wider search is usually required.

Once the calculations are completed a relative share of each emission source can be analysed, together with the potential for mitigation of each source so that overall reduction targets can be set.   Most organisations prefer to focus initially on reduction activities before they consider carbon offsetting.  This is usually wise as many reductions in emissions also produce cost savings, though any up front costs of change also need to be considered.    If the cost of change is high and the financial payback is very slow, then offsetting emissions through the purchase of carbon credits may prove a more financially sound approach.

Other valuable sources of emissions reductions to consider are those made by suppliers of more emissions intensive goods.  By considering emissions as part of the purchasing decision, and by working with suppliers, it may be possible to achieve a significant reduction in emissions for a lower cost than would apply to making changes within your organisation.

John Downie is Principal Consultant at Carbon Coach, a unique service that provides the assistance and information individuals and businesses require to complete their own carbon footprint assessments.