Environmental Impact Software to Quickly Measure Carbon Footprint
September 14, 2012

New Environmental Impact Software Allows Quick Measure of Carbon Footprints

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

New software has been developed that can rapidly calculate the carbon footprints of thousands of products simultaneously, a process that has proven time consuming and expensive until now. This new software should help companies to accurately label products as well as design new ways to reduce their environmental impacts.

A new study, published online in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, describes how the software works.

The project is a collaboration between Columbia University's Earth Institute's, the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy and PepsiCo, Inc. The original aim of the project was to evaluate and help standardize PepsiCo's calculations of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted when a product is made, packaged, distributed and disposed of. Started in 2007, it resulted in the first U.S. carbon footprint label certified by an impartial third party for Tropicana orange juice. PepsiCo has been pilot-testing the methodology for other uses since 2011.

Project leader Christopher Meinrenken and his team used a life-cycle-analysis database — a tool used to assess the environmental impact of a product — that contained information on 1,137 PepsiCo products.

The team then developed three new methods for using the information in the database that enable them to calculate thousands of footprints within minutes and requiring minimal user input. The key component was a model that generates estimated emission factors for materials, eliminating the manual mapping of a product's ingredients and packaging materials that was previously required.

Meinrenken explained that the automatically generated factors enable even non-experts "to calculate approximate carbon footprints and alleviate resource constraints for companies embarking on large-scale product carbon footprinting."

He added that the software complies with guidelines sponsored by the nonprofit World Resources Institute, which provides standards against which carbon footprints can be audited.

Prior to this breakthrough, life-cycle analysis has mostly been performed on one product at a time, requiring large amounts of resources in personnel, expertise and time. Few companies have enough employees with specialized expertise in this field, and some have tried to overcome this bottleneck by reverting to aggregate data and calculations, leading to calculations with a high margin of error.

Inspired by fields outside environmental science, the researchers´ new approach to calculating carbon footprints can help companies design and asses ways to lessen products´ environmental impact.

"At companies like Facebook or Netflix, engineers employ statistical wizardry to mine vast datasets and essentially teach computers to predict, for instance, who will like a particular movie," Meinrenken said. His team employed similar methods to mine detailed product and supply chain data.

"For an environmental engineer, using such data to estimate how much the environment will 'like' certain products and services is especially rewarding," he said. "Consumers will be able to make more informed choices."

According to Al Halvorsen, senior director of sustainability at PepsiCo, "The newly developed software promises to not only save time and money for companies like PepsiCo, but also to provide fresh insights into how companies measure, manage, and reduce their carbon footprint in the future."

Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, said, "Fast carbon footprinting is a great example of how academic methodologies [coupled] with modern data processing and statistical tools can be brought to life and unlock their power in the real world." Meinrenken's team is now looking at transferring the methodology from carbon to other fields such as water use.