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Product-based climate protection strategies: understanding, applying and using the product carbon footprint

In order to achieve ambitious climate targets we must make substantial changes in product development and our consumption patterns. To understand the climate impacts of products, companies need reliable information on the greenhouse gas emissions arising over the entire life cycle of their products. This information is essential to effectively minimise climate impacts of the manufacture, use and disposal of products. In addition, more and more consumers wish to be informed of the climate impacts of products and services.

The product carbon footprint (PCF) provides such information:

"The product carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced throughout the entire life cycle of a product in a defined application and in relation to a defined unit.”

In recent years a number of initiatives have been launched to calculate the CO2 balance of products in order to describe their specific CO2 footprint or product carbon footprint; unfortunately they apply very different calculation methods.

International harmonisation of methods and standardisation

After three years of preparation and testing, the World Resources Institute (WRI) of Washington and the Swiss World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) published a document entitled "GHG Protocol: Product Life Cycle Accounting and Reporting Standard" in autumn 2011. In addition to binding calculation and communication requirements, the document also provides useful instructions on how to design PCF studies.

In addition to the GHG protocol, international standardisation organisations also worked on standardising the calculation methods of carbon footprints. The technical specification (TS) "Greenhouse gases -- Carbon footprint of products -- Requirements and guidelines for quantification and communication” (ISO/TS 14067:2013) approved in 2013 is a provisional result of this process. In 2016, work resumed on an ISO standard for PCF methodology. However, it does not cover communication of PCF as this is to be standardised separately (ISO 14026).

National activities

In view of the continuing lack of internationally agreed upon methodologies, the Federal Environment Ministry and the Federal Environment Agency had commissioned the Institute for Applied Ecology in Freiburg early on to develop proposals for a robust methodology. The results were recorded in a Memorandum on product carbon footprint published at the end of 2009. The Memorandum includes principles that should be taken into account when establishing and communicating the climate balance of products. They should be seen as recommendations and give users the reassurance of having chosen an accepted methodology. The Memorandum was also introduced into the international processes on standardising PCF.

One important finding is that while the product carbon footprint is a useful tool for informing manufacturers, it is not yet suitable for use in the communication with consumers.

The Federal Environment Ministry also considers it generally useful that all relevant environmental aspects such as land use, pollutant concentrations/levels and emissions are included in a life cycle analysis.

Therefore, companies are advised to make use of the well-proven and known Blue Angel eco-label when communicating the environmental aspects of their products. For some years now the Blue Angel has also covered particularly energy-saving and climate-friendly products and services, indicated by the words "schützt das Klima" (protects the climate) below the logo.

In 2010, the then BMU in cooperation with the Federal Environment Agency and the Federation of German Industries issued joint guidelines on the basis of the Memorandum to serve as a reliable tool for companies wishing to calculate and communicate the product carbon footprint of their products. A revised version of the guidelines was published at the end of 2012. 

Last update: 01.05.2015