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Should we focus on reducing our energy or our carbon?

If there was an abundance of clean and cheap energy we wouldn’t have to care so much about wasting energy. Of course, most of our energy comes from fossil fuels which are the largest contributor to manmade global warming. As we pay for energy and fuel by the kWh or litre it makes business and environmental sense to reduce our consumption of these immediately. That’s why most of our work is on energy management – doing more with less energy at the lowest cost.

What’s the difference between an energy audit and carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint casts the net of our environmental impact a bit wider than an energy audit. This includes your energy related emissions, but can also include non-energy related emissions (for example, use of refrigerants and the release of other greenhouse gases like methane) as well as emissions resulting from the goods and services that we pay for (such as flights, cloud storage and telecommunications). Energy audits include some degree of financial appraisal and are focused more on your bottom line but we can include this in a carbon footprint too.

What do you mean by “life-cycle assessment”?

There is always the danger of cutting off your nose to spite your face when doing carbon or energy saving initiatives. On a massive scale, think for example of the policy move across EU member states to switch to diesel cars. It seemed like a good idea at the time to help meet our long-term global climate commitments and reduce CO2 emissions. But now the focus is on the local air pollution health risk, particularly since the WHO’s cancer research agency classified diesel engine exhaust fumes as cancer-causing in 2012. Indeed, the European Environment Agency estimates that air pollution causes 467,000 premature deaths a year in Europe, and about half of these are from traffic emissions. In Ireland, four people die every day due to air pollution and yet most deaths linked to poor air quality are preventable (Independent 2017 and EEA 2013).

If you wish to go a bit deeper again, there is life-cycle assessment (LCA) which considers a whole list of environmental impacts together. It considers these impacts throughout the life cycle of a product from raw material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, use and ultimately to the product’s end-of-life. This should give you a more accurate picture of the true impact. The mathematics behind it all is pretty simple, it’s just the sheer volume of calculations that demands care. Thankfully software advances have made these sort of assessments more affordable. Whether considering an environmental footprint of a single product, an entire factory or a building made up of thousands of different parts, an LCA and an eco-design review is a great way to get started on the circular economy.

What other measurements are out there?

You may hear of other environmental assessment methods and standards: Science Based Targets, for example, which are about doing your fair share in relation to emissions reduction. An environmental profit and loss essentially monetises a life-cycle assessment into a language better understood at board room level. Natural capital accounting looks at natural resources and services within an ecosystem or region and would likely do some degree of valuing of environmental and social benefits on topics such as biodiversity and recreation. We only really mention these other methods if we think they might be of use to you and help you engage your audience.

Who is Kate Raworth?

Kate Raworth is an English economist working for the University of Oxford. She is known for her work on the ‘doughnut economy’, which she understands as an economic model that balances between essential human needs and planetary boundaries. We liked it so much we have reframed her ‘corporate to-do list’ in our one question quiz. The beauty of Raworth’s to-do list is in its succinctness. It sets an aspirational path towards becoming a truly generative business model.