VG08107 – Carbon Footprint part 1 – definitions

Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL), have released a series of discussion papers on the carbon footprint of the Australian vegetable industry.

The papers provide useful information including an estimate of the carbon footprint of the Australian vegetable industry.

This paper provides a definition for a “carbon footprint” and provide an insight into the terminologies and approaches included within this concept.


Andrew John East

What is a Carbon Footprint - an overview of definitions and methodologies - September 2008
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Purpose :

A number of key issues are addressed in this discussion.

  1. The origins of the “footprinting concept” are addressed to establish the conceptual history (and baggage) associated with this term.

  2. Existing literature is critiqued to scope the various definitions, highlight distinctions and articulate a preferred definition of a carbon footprint.

  3. Key methodological steps involved in the calculation of a carbon footprint.

  4. Recommendations of this study are presented, linking the broader debate on “what is a carbon footprint” with implications for the development of a footprinting tool in the Australian Horticultural industry.

Conclusions and recommendations :

A review of relevant literature has shown that the term “carbon footprint” has gained acceptance in the public domain without being clearly defined in the scientific community.

Evolving from the ecological footprint concept, the term carbon footprint is now widely used as a “buzz word” to further stimulate consumers‟ growing concern for issues related to climate change by describing anything from the narrowest to the widest interpretation of greenhouse gas measurement and reduction.

The incorporation of this term into recent peer reviewed literature demonstrates the popularity of the term and its growing acceptance and use even within some scientific literature.

Although a universally accepted definition of a carbon footprint is yet to (and may never) exist, the general consensus of literature in the public domain is that a carbon footprint is concerned with the measurement of direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human based consumption and production practices.

While there is no question of the popularity of this term, the suitability of this term for use in association with measuring greenhouse emissions in horticulture is more questionable. In general, the term carbon footprint is associated with a less rigorous, consumer oriented, popularised concept of greenhouse gas reductions for the purpose of marketing the benefits of less emission intensive products and services.

Alternatively, the term greenhouse gas accounting is generally associated with more rigorous measurement of greenhouse gases for the purpose of calculating and reducing a company‟s greenhouse gases.

The plethora of definitions of carbon footprinting in the public domain is in contrast to the need to establish a clear an unambiguous definition of this term to inform methodological decisions associated with measuring and reporting on greenhouse gas emission.

In this way, alternative terms such as “greenhouse gas accounting” while not having the public appeal of “carbon footprint” could be considered more suitable if a purely linguistic approach was taken.

However regardless of the term that is used, the development of a tool to measure the emission of greenhouse gases from horticultural systems must be based on national and preferably internationally accepted methodologies.

International agreement on emissions reductions such as the Kyoto protocol and international publications provide a valuable resource to inform these methodological decisions.

Although the level of detail contained in these publications may be in excess of the requirements of many organisations, adhering to the fundamental principles will significantly increase the accuracy and credibility of findings.

At a minimum, a tool to measure and report on greenhouse gas emissions should consider emissions that result from practices directly controlled or owned by the unit (country, company, person, etc.) under study.

However, significant scope exists for this measurement to be extended to include indirect emissions in the broader economy that result from an organisation‟s management decisions.

A measurement tool should also at a minimum, include the measurement of all six greenhouse gases covered in the Kyoto protocol expressed in greenhouse gas equivalents.

Finally, clearly articulating the purpose of the footprinting study is critical to informing more detailed methodological decisions on the extent and approach to analysis that is required.

Acknowledgments :

Funding was provided by Australian vegetable growers (through the R & D levy) and Horticulture Australia Limited. The Australian Government provides matched funding for all HAL’s R&D activities.

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