Counting carbon
Published:  21 November, 2008

While PAS 2050 provides businesses with a framework in which to calculate the carbon footprint of different products, the process of doing so is just not that straightforward, finds Carina Perkins.

At the end of last month, Defra and the Carbon Trust announced the launch of a new carbon footprinting standard created in association with BSI British Standards. The standard – PAS 2050 (Publicly Available Standard 2050) – provides a framework for businesses to analyse their product’s lifecycle and assess “embedded” greenhouse gas emissions, from sourcing and raw materials through to packaging and distribution. 


In simple terms, PAS 2050 enables food companies to estimate the amount of C02 in grams used in the life of a product, a number that, theoretically, could be displayed on a carbon label. “You cannot see or count emissions when you buy a product. But consumers want to know that emissions are being cut by businesses and this standard will help businesses to do that,” gushed environment secretary Hilary Benn during the launch.

The new standard might be the darling of Defra, but producers and processors have understandable reservations about the conse-quences of carbon labelling. So what exactly will PAS 2050 achieve? What are its limitations? And what will it mean for an industry under almost constant attack from scientists and activists, claiming that “meat is murder” for the environment?


Plus points and pitfalls

Commissioned by Defra in res-ponse to a growing volume of public debate on food emissions and industry requests for a standardised approach to carbon footprinting, PAS 2050 has been hailed as a “major milestone” in the move towards a low carbon economy. PAS 2050 measures the carbon footprint of a food product through all the stages in the food chain – from raw material production through to disposal. In measuring the carbon inputs at each of these stages of production, the process allows each business down the chain to identify carbon ‘hotspots’, implement carbon reduction initiatives and save costs, as well as the environment. “PAS 2050 provides an important tool for the food chain to both assess its carbon impact and drive business improvement. Assessing a carbon footprint can identify opportunities and priorities for business to significantly improve productive efficiency, energy efficiency and waste minimisation, thereby saving costs,” said James Clarke, ADAS business development manager.

There is no doubt that PAS 2050 is a useful tool, but it has its fair share of problems and limitations, particularly when applied to the food industry. The production of raw materials is generally the emissions ‘hotspot’ for food products. According to research from Defra, the raw materials used in a cottage pie ready meal – mainly beef and potato – make up 65% of the product’s carbon footprint. It is vital, therefore, that the data collected at the production end of the chain is as accurate as possible.

But this is not easy. While a supermarket may be faced with increasing consumer pressure for environmentally responsible food, farmers have a multitude of other things to worry about and many have neither the time nor the will to collect accurate carbon data. In addition, food supply chains, particularly for processed foods, are complex and variable, with raw materials sourced from a number of different suppliers. “Because it is virtually impossible to get data for every ingredient, PAS 2050 allows you to pro rata emissions for ingredients that make up less than 5% of the product’s whole, but this estimation affects the accuracy of the final figure,” said Dr Gary Tucker, process development manager for the department of food manufacturing technologies at Campden BRI. 

Problems also arise when collecting data from manufacturers. “A manufacturer can measure the amount of energy he uses in his plant, but it is very difficult to calculate exactly what proportion of that energy was used in processing a particular product,” said David Lancaster, an ADAS consultant.


Important exclusions

Inaccurate data inputs are not the only problem. A range of complexities, such as co-products, carbon storage and land use change, mean that there are also some exclusions, which further affects the accuracy of the final carbon figure. “We had to develop a framework that was practical, so PAS 2050 has some important exclusions, such as the transport of workers and retail consumers, embedded emissions in capital goods and indirect land change,” explained Jeremy Wiltshire, senior consultant with ADAS. PAS 2050 not only excludes certain carbon inputs, but also other sustainability factors, raising the question about whether it is sensible to rely entirely on a carbon measure to evaluate the environmental performance of a product or business. “PAS 2050 does not take into account the use of water, which is a vital aspect of sustainability. There is a danger of putting too much focus on carbon and ignoring other environmental factors,” said Wiltshire. Sometimes, lowering emissions will conflict with other sustainable aims. Battery eggs, for example, have a lower carbon footprint than free-range eggs, but animal welfare is an important consideration for consumers. “Carbon footprinting is just one part of sustainability. We have to be realistic that there will be conflicts between carbon and other aspects of sustainability,” said Sarah Sim, lifecycle manager at Unilever.


Carbon labelling?

So, bearing in mind these limitations, how will PAS 2050 be applied to the food chain? Perhaps surprisingly, given the level of noise about carbon labelling of late, delegates at a carbon footprinting conference held by ADAS recently – including representatives from supermarkets, manufacturers, regional development agencies and producers – agreed almost unanimously that, at present, carbon labelling would not be beneficial for the food industry. 

The main reason for the industry aversion to carbon labelling is the inaccuracy of results. “Getting the data can be difficult, so getting 100% accuracy for labelling claims would be a nightmare,” said Alison Austin, environmental affairs manager for Sainsbury’s.

A second reason is that achieving an accurate carbon footprint can be a lengthy process and the integral parts of carbon footprinting often have more value than the final answer. “If you just put a figure on a pack, what is the consumer going to do?” said Austin. “NGOs want positive developments on climate change now, not just promises of labelling some time in the future.” This is good news for the meat industry. The methane emissions that result from livestock production mean that meat has a far higher carbon footprint figure than other foods and displaying this on a label could be disastrous. “Beef and lamb will always come up with a high number,” said Mary Vickers, EBLEX beef scientist. “The number itself potentially dangerous, it is the process that is key.”

Sainsbury’s integrated dairy group – the first model agriculture to be approved by the Carbon Trust – is a good example of how PAS 2050 can be applied to the food chain without relying on labels. “We have been asking our suppliers to measure their own carbon footprints, to think about their inputs and to ask their own suppliers for carbon data,” said Austin. “When we ask for carbon footprints, we only see the pool of results. There is no intention of bargaining, it is about moving the whole group upwards to improved efficiency.” As well as improving its efficiency, Sainsbury’s dairy farmers have made some significant cost savings through carbon footprinting. Delegates at the conference agreed that, in order to encourage farmers to invest time and effort into collecting carbon footprint data, it is these cost savings that need to be emphasised. “In order to attract the interest of producers, discussions about carbon footprinting need to move away from carbon labelling as a marketing tool and towards economic and business drivers, such as savings from improved efficiency,” said Stuart Ashworth, senior business analyst for Quality Meat Scotland (QMS).

In order to increase the potential of PAS 2050 as a tool to improve efficiency, ADAS is currently calculating some standard figures for food products. “We are currently trying to produce an output value for various food products, which businesses can use as a baseline to measure their product against,” said Wiltshire.


Stepping forward

Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), is confident that, given sufficient support and encouragement, farmers will rise to the carbon challenge. “For too long we have been viewed as park-keepers, but that is starting to change,” he said. “We are determined to show leadership on climate change.”

The NFU has welcomed PAS 2050, but Kendall insisted that any action must be undertaken by a partnership that includes the whole supply chain and the government. “We need to keep in mind the potential impact for the farmer if we get this wrong,” he said. “Supermarkets must not insist that farmers invest and then abandon them if priorities change.” 

Kendall is right to be concerned – the future of carbon footprinting is by no means set in stone. When it comes to the environment and sustainability, there is a constantly emerging and evolving agenda that will no doubt continue to change. What is certain is that the food industry must reduce its emissions if it is to escape future legislation from a government desperate to meet its Kyoto targets. The meat industry, in particular, must improve its environmental performance if it is to fight off its critics. PAS 2050 is a step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go