Towards a universal carbon footprint standard: A case study of carbon management at universities

University of Southampton

Publication Release Date: Jan. 20, 2018
Date Posted: May 14, 2018
Submitted by: Jade Chalkley
Content Type: Publications
Publisher: Elsevier B.V.
Periodical Name: Journal of Cleaner Production
Type: Journal Article


Organisations of all types are significant contributors to international greenhouse gas emissions. The business case for supporting low-carbon practices is gathering pace, alongside the regulatory demands imposed through carbon emission compliance reporting. Despite this, guidance for generating carbon footprints through hybrid environmentally extended input-output analysis is under-developed and under-researched. Higher Education Institutions are key components of education systems across the globe, transcending international borders, socio-political regimes and economic systems. As an internationally significant sector beginning to address climate issues through carbon reduction policies on and off the estate, very few research articles have been published that document emissions arising from all directly and indirectly attributable activities. This study outlines a number of key elements to standardise the organisational carbon footprinting process by reconciling and evaluating the methodological steps in six selected internationally reputable guidelines (published by the Global Reporting Initiative, the Carbon Disclosure Project, the United Kingdom's Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, the International Standardisation Organisation and the Higher Education Funding Council for England). A systematic review is undertaken which relates the four principles of carbon footprinting (boundary-setting, identification of activities, collecting of data and reporting/verification) to the academic literature. Then, via consultation with university environment managers, a number of recommendations are made to address and improve i) the potential to avoid double-counting, ii) the financial and resource cost of carbon footprinting and iii) the reliability and comparability of data compiled by institutions. We introduce a methodology for a universal, standardised footprinting standard for higher education (that could also apply to all organisations regardless of sector or region) with cut-off criteria that excludes paid-for products and services typically included in the ‘Scope 3’ proportion of the footprint. In proposing this methodology, carbon footprinting is made more applicable to higher education institutions (since existing standards are designed for generality and for profit-driven organisations) and the practical issues, associated with externally owned data and non-expert staff, are broadly overcome.