Today, you can buy a pair of sneakers made partially from carbon dioxide taken from the atmosphere. But measuring the carbon reduction benefits of making that pair of running shoes with COtwo it is complex. There’s the fossil fuel left in the ground, a definite carbon saver. But what about the energy cost of cooling the CO?two in liquid form and transport it to a production plant? And what happens when your child outgrows their shoes in six months and they can’t be recycled into a new product because those systems aren’t in place yet?
As companies seek to reduce their carbon footprint, many conduct life cycle assessments to quantify the full carbon cost of products, from purchasing materials to energy use in manufacturing, product transportation, user behavior and end-of-life disposal. It’s a mind-bogglingly difficult metric, but that bean count is necessary to keep the planet at a habitable temperature, says Andrea Ramirez Ramirez, an expert in low-carbon systems at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
It’s easy to get carbon accounting wrong, she says. Differences in starting points for determining a product’s “shelf life” or assumptions about energy sources can affect the math.
Carbon use can be reduced at many points along the production chain, for example by using renewable energy in the manufacturing process, or adding atmospheric COtwo to the product. But if other points along the chain consume a lot of energy or emit COtwopoints out, the final count may show a positive number instead of a negative one.
A product is carbon negative only when its production actually removes carbon from the environment, temporarily or permanently. The overall COtwo Initiative, with European and American universities, has created a set of LCA guidelines standardize measurement so that carbon accounting is consistent and terms such as “carbon neutral” or “carbon negative” have verifiable meaning.
However, in the rush to create products that can be promoted to fight climate change, some companies have been accused of “green wash”: making products or companies appear more environmentally friendly than they really are. Examples of green washing, according to a March 2022 analysis by mechanical engineers Grant Faber and Volker Sick of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, include labeling plastic garbage bags as recyclable when their sole purpose is to throw them away; use labels such as “eco-friendly” or “100% Natural” without official certification; and claiming a better carbon footprint without acknowledging the existence of even better options. An example would be “fuel efficient” sport utility vehicles, which are only fuel efficient compared to other SUVs rather than smaller cars, mass transit, or bicycles.
A good LCA analysis, says Sick, can distinguish companies that are carbon friendly in name only, from those that are actually helping the world clean the air.