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Let my footprint be smart!

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 3 July 2014 00:00


When reading company annual reports and sustainability reports, various footprint calculations can be observed today. While with high-profile multinationals that is now almost the norm, Sri Lankan companies too are catching up to the style – and hopefully some in substance – of incorporating such figures into their reports. However, in some cases I get the uneasy feeling that someone decided to include the data a few weeks before the deadline and rushed in to determine the value as reporting is not quite coherent. However, the gloss of the paper and the superior info-graphics can drown your misgivings as we truly spend lavishly on our annual reports. The carbon footprint of the effort of producing the report too can be quite hefty when we take into account the subsequent award ceremonies too held in recognition of such submissions. Fine, I do admit that they are needed in today’s business world, but I am keen to see sense reflected through the effort. When we may be counting even a simple donation as a corporate social responsibility activity, in calculating the footprint as we try to have a low figure we can face activity amnesia. In CSR, cramming all possible events to inflate the position is attempted. The month of May indeed offers some ample opportunities in doing that! In footprinting, one tries to demonstrate that indeed you and your organisation are treading lightly on the planet, hence it is a process of minimisation. As both maximisation and minimisations are involved, sometimes these are difficult philosophies to digest and implement.    

A carbon footprint

A carbon footprint is historically defined as “the total sets of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an organisation, event, product or person”. Today the greenhouse gas footprint covers all greenhouse gases while carbon footprint is usually limited to carbon dioxide and methane emissions. We were discussing the most notorious greenhouse gas in the last two columns – carbon dioxide. Now calculating this value accurately is not easy as you need to understand all nuances of your activities or processes and then the institution. It is data intensive and should be calculated with due attention to all. Ecological footprint calculation was the initial precursor in all foot printing calculations where there are quite a few in use today. William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel in the 1990s estimated the number of “earths” that would theoretically be required if everyone on the planet consumed resources at the same level as the person calculating their ecological footprint. Mathis’s PhD thesis came out in book form in 1996. One remembers well here Mahatma Gandhi who told the British Raj about their consumption of planetary resources and compared how many planets may be needed if all Indians were to start consuming like that in order to achieve the status an Englishman appears to enjoy. He was years ahead of Rees and Wackernagel in conceptualising what went on to become the ecological footprint. Carbon footprint is easier to calculate when compared to the ecological footprint due to the limitation in scope.    

Resource footprint

Resource footprint is much more revealing as it estimates human pressure on global ecosystems. Population size, average per capita consumption of resources and the resource intensity nature of technology employed all contribute to the ecological footprint. As we populate the planet, we also have demonstrated unconstrained demand on all types of resources. It is curbing this appetite that we are becoming more conscious today. The need has not just come from pure altruism but had a lot to do with the realisation that this way of living cannot go on. Hence, the need for a correction in our way of living. Consider the following product on offer – limited edition of high definition television, supreme edition. Its base and frame is made from 22 carat gold and outer frame is lined with hand-sewn alligator skin while the inner screen is adorned with 48 round-cut diamonds for viewing pleasure. Interesting indeed and the price is upon request. From a purely technical point of view, alligator skins, gold and diamonds do not make an iota of a contribution to functionality. It only polishes the ego. I would not however extend the concept that aesthetic design is irrelevant. The technical advances made in producing a TV had been crowded with expensive and unnecessary glitter and lives too are lost in supporting the decorative function. Imagine if each one of us to pursue such dreams and measure our successes in life via the collection of such paraphernalia. Lives lived with such dreams are not going to add value as we are coming to understand today. The difficulty is we all have this fair share of heavy luggage in our minds when we come to consider and aspire on how we should live. Footprinting exercises carried out across society may bare many excesses.    

Time for action

Once calculated and known it is time to reflect as well as to take action. Of course any action depends on your attitude towards our collective future. It is known that as a nation our individual footprints are quite low compared to nations such as United States and Australia. When one aspires to such developments and lifestyles through business as usual, we are planning to embark on increasing our carbon footprint. If each one of us allows such aspirations to rule our paths, then changes that we desperately seek would not happen. It is important to understand two salient truths. The United States starting early did not have the issues that we collectively face today even though such strident advances may have in fact contributed to the present state of issues. However, no one really travelled with the express intention of causing climate change as it is an unfortunate by-product – a very serious one at that. The second point to know is that Sri Lanka does not have the luxury of travelling down the same road in seeking the same goal. We do have to travel down a different road – low carbon road map while being innovative all along the way. How well we understand the former and be innovative and risk taking with the latter would show our mettle as a nation. We should be able to go down this road much less travelled and emerge victorious if we work together after understanding the issues together. Sri Lanka can be a pioneering nation as we have almost all the ingredients for green economic growth.    

Modify one’s carbon footprint

There are many ways one can modify one’s carbon footprint. As activities and lifestyle contribute to the value it amounts to modification in these areas. Interesting conflicts can happen too. Selection of diets can influence an individual footprint. As our staple diet is rice and as growing rice is associated with methane emissions – a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – mitigating perhaps may mean switching to a non-rice diet – when we will be able to push that idea across! This indicates that decisions are not simple even though the issue at stake is our future on this planet! Consider cattle in India which boasts the world’s largest population. Methane emissions from cattle contribute significantly to India’s carbon footprint as a nation and subsequently to global emissions. Research is ongoing in changing the diet of animals so that they emit less methane. They will be force fed differently to save the planet. You may decide for yourself when one views how our decisions are made. We need to look at ways of reducing extremes of affluence and poverty in general. The fabled middle path easily comes to my mind. A rule of thumb stated is that a person should have a personal carbon footprint of about one ton of carbon dioxide. As many a carbon calculator is available on the web, you may decide for yourself. The process of answering questions really helps you in some self education too if you are not aware of the issue or of the elements that made up the whole. Hope one will tot up his or her carbon after reading this column and spending some time at a web site. You are doing yourself and others a service. These calculations form the basis for carbon and resource accounting. We today have ecological economists though they are not still in mainstream positions. However, in ensuring environmental bottom line in sustainability frameworks such practices are the most important. When you tread lightly, if one wants to have quality without turning your back on all conveniences and elements of quality, you need to be smart too – hence the need for eco-innovation. Combination of these ideas and techniques allow you to tread smartly and that should be our aspiration. [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.]  

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