Yes, they can. But there are some caveats.
There are uncertainties regarding several aspects of the calculations. Most of the uncertainties relate to biological processes, such as nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural fields or methane emissions from livestock. These emissions may differ depending on growing conditions, weather, individual animals in a given population, etc. As a food producer, you typically cannot control or even know exactly what the weather was like where grains were grown, or which animal in a stock ended up in which package, etc. What can be known, however, is what the emissions are on average for different production systems.
Consequently, different products and different production systems may have predictable differences between their expected emissions. With similar uncertainties, there can still be a point in comparing them, as long as the method for the calculations, scope, all system boundaries, and assumptions are consistent.
As an example, say that you have two products with emissions of 0.66 kg CO2e and 0.74 kg CO2e respectively. There may be an uncertainty interval of say ± 0.08 kg CO2e for both. But the first may still cause reliably lower emissions due to known factors, i.e. factors with much lower uncertainty, such as transport or energy-related emissions. Also, the producers may make an investment that reliably reduces the emissions for the second product by eg. 0.06 kg CO2e. This matters and can be known. The only way to convey this improvement about the product is to communicate the climate footprint with relatively high precision, as the midpoint in the uncertainty interval. The uncertainty is outside of the control and knowledge of the producers and from a probability perspective, can be assumed to affect the two products equally.
Important: Any comparison between products should only be made when the individual assessments have been made with the same method, scope, system boundaries, and assumptions. If the different studies have been made with differences in any of these aspects the comparison may be unfair and unreliable, with the risk of the wrong conclusions being drawn.
Allocation deals with the distribution of responsibility for emissions from production systems that produce more than one final product.
A good example is a dairy cow, who produces milk, calves, meat, and leather. Throughout her life, the cow causes emissions of greenhouse gases of various kinds. At the same time, she produces a number of calves, she produces milk, and finally, she gets slaughtered which produces meat and leather. The meat in turn consists of higher and lower quality cuts.
There is no one objective truth for how the emissions she caused throughout her life should be allocated between the products. Different allocations can be argued for to answer different questions. The result, unfortunately, is that comparisons of results between different LCA studies for different products, such as different brands of cheese or milk may give erroneous conclusions that there are differences where there are none if the allocations were done differently in the different studies. This can be investigated, of course, but requires work.
All allocations in CarbonCloud are done according to the same principles for all products, to make them internally fairly comparable.
What you measure is climate footprint and the unit with which you measure it is kg CO2e, or only kg CO2 if all the emissions are carbon dioxide (CO2). Think about it as you would with length, where what you measure is the length and the unit you measure it with is a meter. If it makes grammatical sense to write length you write climate footprint and if it makes grammatical sense to write meter then you write kg CO2e.
There are many different greenhouse gases of which carbon dioxide is the most widely known. Different greenhouse gases affect the climate in different ways. Some stay in the atmosphere for a long time but do not cause so much warming per kg emissions, like carbon dioxide. Others, like methane, heat the earth a lot, but do not stay very long in the atmosphere. There is an exchange rate of sorts, that makes the comparison of the different gases possible. The exchange rate expresses how many kg of carbon dioxide emissions that warm the climate equally as 1 kg of another greenhouse gas. The exchange rate is called Global Warming Potential and is typically abbreviated GWP. By knowing the GWP of different gases the total climate impact of a product can be condensed into one single unit: kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents (kg CO2e).
CarbonCloud calculates the climate footprint of food. Why not the ‘carbon footprint’ as many others talk about? Well, the calculation is the same, but the term ‘carbon footprint’ is misleading, since it gives the impression that it is all about carbon. When we think about greenhouse gases it is usually carbon dioxide that springs to mind. This is the most important greenhouse gas when it comes to human impact on the environment, but for food production, it is actually of minor importance.
Carbon dioxide is responsible for around 65% of the total warming of Earth. However, methane and nitrous oxide are two other important greenhouse gases that often are of much greater importance for the life cycle assessment of food products. In agriculture, emissions of methane originate primarily from the digestive systems of ruminants, manure management, and rice production. Methane is a very strong greenhouse gas but does not stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide is emitted from cropland. A small proportion of all available nitrogen in the soil is converted into nitrous oxide, which is both a strong and long-lived greenhouse gas. Nitrous oxide emissions also come from manure handling and when synthetic fertilizers are produced.
Food production also causes emissions of carbon dioxide, primarily when fossil fuels are used for machinery and transport in the supply chain, carbon stock changes in the soil, and from the production of packaging material.
Our goal is to assess how much each edible item in the grocery store contributes to global warming. For many food products, it is nitrous oxide that stands for the largest climate impact, which has nothing to do with carbon. Therefore we use the term ‘climate footprint’.
CarbonCloud’s online tool is based on twenty years of research and has been reviewed in connection with a wide range of scientific publications. It has been used by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and is also the basis for international cooperation, for example with Princeton University and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). CarbonCloud is following trends and actively collaborating with research institutes to stay at the forefront of the scientific leaps within the field of climate calculations.
Turning the science into an easy-to-use online tool was made possible by CarbonCloud’s highly experienced development team. The Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform where security, robustness, and new innovative features are the guiding stars, is suitable for all-size companies and food products.
Some great features in CarbonCloud’s Online Tool:
– Comprehensive material database for emissions factors, country and vehicle-specific energy mixes
– Fast and accurate modeling
– Easy-to-use tool with advanced equation systems, data, and calculations under the hood
– Self-explanatory modeling – you cannot make mistakes
– Find hotspots in the process, build future scenarios, and focus the climate efforts
– Possible to connect suppliers and enable collaborations
– System boundaries, emission allocation, and treatment of energy systems are treated the same for all calculations which makes the results for different products comparable between each other
– Possibility to build what-if scenarios
In the online tool, CarbonCloud calculates emissions from the cradle to the gate. The cradle is the production of agricultural inputs and the gate is a shelf in a typical grocery store. All substantial and relevant steps and processes that cause greenhouse gas emissions are represented in the model. This approach ensures that all food products are calculated in the same way, and can be fairly compared to each other.
The climate assessment in CarbonCloud includes emissions from:
– Transport (The transport chain of inputs from field to factory, and of the final product from factory to market)
– Refinement (Electricity and gas consumption in refinement)
– Packaging (production and transport of packaging)
The online tool is a self-explanatory graphical interface where the user does not need to interact with the underlying equations. It makes the modeling process easy and fun.
Cooking is not included in the footprint. For most food products there are many different cooking options and several cooking techniques. Some consumers will fry, some will boil, some will use a gas stove, some electric, and some a microwave oven. This is beyond the control of the producer.
The amount of recycled ingredients and packaging material used in the production process is included. Producers control whether they purchase recycled packaging material. Any recycling of the product and packaging by the consumer after purchasing the product is not included in the footprint assessments. Some consumers recycle and some do not and this is beyond the control of the producer. However, if the producer encourages the consumer to recycle this will increase the opportunity to source recycled material in the production process.
Any waste in the production process is included. Any waste after purchase is not. Some consumers waste a lot of food and some do not and this is beyond the control of the producer.
All transportation throughout the sourcing and production process and distribution to a representative grocery store that can be influenced by the producer is included. Transportation of the consumer to the store and back or the distribution of the product from the store to the consumer depends on consumer habits and behavior is not included in the footprint. Some consumers drive SUVs to the store, some walk, and some order online; this is beyond the control of the producer.
The cradle-to-shelf approach is based on simple and straightforward criteria to only include emissions that are directly controlled or influenced by the producer. The producer controls the production, choice of suppliers, and distribution of the product. The producer does not control what happens to the product once it is sold.
This product footprint criterion can be summarized as follows:
– Include all emissions that are related to how the product is produced and distributed and thus independent of who the consumer is.
– Do not include emissions that are related to how the product is purchased, consumed, and disposed of and thus are dependent on who the consumer is.
One can argue that this does not include the full life cycle of the product, which is true, but it includes everything to make a fair comparison between products available in the store. For that reason, it also provides a valid footprint scope to use for consumer information when a purchase decision is made.
When making climate footprint calculations based on life cycle assessment methodology there are many different ways that system boundaries can be drawn and argued for, depending on the specific research question under assessment. CarbonCloud’s mission is to provide a platform for a fair comparison of climate performance between food products and producers. This puts strong and specific requirements on how the system boundaries should be defined.
The product-specific climate footprint assessments on CarbonCloud cover major emission sources from cradle to shelf. Concretely this means all parts of the value chain from production of inputs to agriculture, agriculture, transports, refinements, packaging, and distribution to a representative point of sale. Emissions related to the production of capital goods are not included, nor are emissions related to processes and steps that occur after the product has reached the store shelf and beyond. This means that emissions related to the purchase, consumption, and disposal of the product are not included in the product footprint.
The short answer to that is: Yes, it is.
For products like potato chips which mainly consist of a crop with a very low level of refinement, the agriculture per definition stands for the largest part of the climate footprint. However, this number doesn’t say anything about whether the number is high or low. As for the potato chips example, the total CO2 footprint is low in comparison to many other food products.
Plants sequester carbon dioxide from the air when they grow, as carbon (C) is the main building block in nature. The carbon is stored in all parts of the plants, below ground as well as above ground. The same amount of carbon is later released back into the atmosphere after the plant dies and its biomass is decomposed, burned, or digested. In most cases, the release is in the shape of carbon dioxide, but in anoxic conditions, it may be in the shape of methane (CH4). This release happens every time, even if the carbon in some cases is stored in the biomass for a couple of years or decades after the plant is harvested.
Hence for climate footprint calculations, there are no practical reasons to include the carbon sequestration in biomass in the LCI (Life Cycle Inventory), as the sequestration post and the emission post are identical.