Helping the UK reduce its carbon footprint

Kellogg’s used CCaLC to estimate the carbon footprint of their entire product range.

Kellogg’s used CCaLC to estimate the carbon footprint of their entire product range.

The UK government has committed to reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. If we are to achieve this ambitious target, farmers, land owners and businesses in general must take steps to lower their carbon footprint. Over the last ten years, NERC researchers have pioneered tools to help them do just that.

Carbon footprinting supports reduction strategies

In 2010, Professor Adisa Azapagic, a chemical engineer at the University of Manchester developed CCaLC, which stands for ‘Carbon Calculations over the Life Cycle of Industrial Activities’. CCaLC is a suite of software tools that companies can use to calculate the carbon footprint of their products or services, and take steps to reduce it.

The unique selling point of CCaLC is that it considers the complete life cycle of products, rather than just the carbon emitted directly by organisations. In other words, it takes into account emissions generated along the whole supply chain, from the initial mining of primary resources, to end-of-life waste management. It also takes into account other environmental impacts, such as the water footprint of a product, or how much it contributes to ozone layer depletion.

So far, CCaLC has been downloaded by over 9,000 users in more than 90 countries, including manufacturers from the chemical, food and drink, and bio-sectors. In the food and drink sector, it has been used to estimate the carbon footprint of bread, fizzy drinks and ready-meals. For example, the tool calculated that the UK population’s consumption of supermarket lamb curry ready-meals amounts to an annual carbon footprint equivalent to 5,500 car trips around the world, or 140 million car miles. 

Kellogg’s, one of the world’s leading producers of cereals and convenience foods, also used CCaLC to estimate the carbon footprint of their entire product range. The tool revealed that the biggest contributors to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions were raw materials, packaging and low energy efficiency, and that Kellogg’s carbon footprint could be reduced by up to 20% by focusing on these life cycle stages. Kellogg’s also consulted CCaLC when choosing the ingredients and recipes for their Special K brand, for which both carbon and water footprints were reduced by up to 20% as a result of using CCaLC.

GSK, one of the world’s largest healthcare companies, used CCaLC to estimate the carbon footprint of 20 of their key products, including asthma inhalers and Horlicks. CCaLC showed that Ventolin, used by ~300 million asthma sufferers worldwide, is one of the main contributors to the company’s carbon footprint. Since then, GSK have started to collect and recycle waste inhalers, saving upwards of 682 tonnes of CO2.

“CCaLC has been developed specifically for non-experts, as it only requires data on materials and energy used to manufacture the products, which are easily available to most companies,” says Professor Adisa Azapagic. 

“These are then combined with the emissions of greenhouses related to the specified materials and energy, available within CCaLC, to estimate the life cycle carbon footprint of the product.”

Cutting agriculture’s impact on climate

As well as boosting our mental health and wellbeing, the British countryside has a huge role to play in helping us tackle climate change. From the arable land that we use to grow crops, to the trees and peatlands that serve as natural carbon sinks, how we manage the great outdoors can determine whether we meet the ambitious zero emissions target by 2050. 

For example the United Nations has estimated that by 2050 the world will need to produce 70% more food in order to feed a global population of 9 billion. However, growing food is a major cause of global warming, and is responsible for up to a third of all greenhouse gases.

In 2010, researchers at Aberdeen University worked together with the non-profit organisation Sustainable Food Lab in Vermont, and the consumer goods company Unilever to launch the Cool Farm Tool (CFT) – an online greenhouse gas calculator that farmers can use to work out the environmental impact of their practices.

The idea behind the tool is that farmers, suppliers and others working in the food industry can take steps to reduce their carbon footprint, while at the same time maintaining or even boosting yield and productivity.

“When we started building the tool there was a lot of pressure on agriculture to understand and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions,” says Dr Jon Hillier, a lecturer in mathematical modelling at Edinburgh, who originally developed the tool at Aberdeen University.

“However farming is quite unique – each farm is different, so for farmers to really understand what good practice was in terms of reducing carbon emissions, they needed something that would work for them and take into account their unique climate and soil conditions for example.”

Since then, the project has grown and become more ambitious, as more organisations such as AM Fresh, Barfoots, Boortmalt, PepsiCo, Heineken, Danone, Tesco, Heinz, Mars and McCain have got involved. Now the tool, run by the not-for-profit Cool Farm Alliance, has helped tens of thousands of farmers in more than 118 countries around the world assess their carbon output and take steps to reduce it.

For example, WWF-India used CFT to show that cotton farmers in India using traditional cultivation methods apply almost twice as much fertiliser, and generate twice as much greenhouse gases, as those adopting better management practices (BMP) – with no effect on yield. The NGO has since worked with cotton farmers in the Warangal district of India to help them follow BMPs.

Since 2010, Costco has asked its organic egg suppliers to calculate their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions using the tool to encourage carbon reductions and introduce more sustainable production practices. 

A study followed 10 of these large-scale egg producers in the USA, who collectively produce over 600 million eggs per year. Using the tool, the farmers were able to decrease their GHG emissions by nearly 25% over three years, simply by making small changes to feed, transport and manure management.

Other current users include Co-op Coffee, who are using the Cool Farm Tool to provide financial premiums to coffee farmers lowering their emissions; and Nestlé, who have rolled-out the CFT in 25 countries in order to mitigate carbon emissions from fresh-milk supply.

Supporting peatland restoration using carbon finance

While reducing the carbon footprint of farming practices will help the UK meet its climate targets, there are other things we can do too. 

For example, while peatlands are not always thought of as the most exciting or captivating of landscapes, these waterlogged soils, made up of decomposed plant remains, provide an amazing service. For instance, while peatlands cover just 3% of the world’s land surface, they store at least 550 Gigatonnes of carbon – more than twice that contained in all the world’s forests.

UK peatlands currently lock away more than three billion tonnes of carbon, greater than the amount of carbon soaked up every year by all of the world’s oceans combined. They also act as a home to rare wildlife, a source for clean drinking water, and provide natural flood alleviation for local towns and villages. Yet, due to years of damage, 8% of the UK’s peatlands are no longer in a healthy state.

In 2018, the UK Peatland Strategy set an ambitious challenge of ensuring 2 million hectares of peatland is in good condition or under restoration management by 2040. But to achieve this goal, private, as well as public funding will be needed.

To facilitate this, in 2015 NERC scientists helped the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) UK Peatland Programme establish the Peatland Code, the UK’s first certification standard for UK peatland projects wishing to market the climate benefits of peatland restoration.

The idea behind the scheme is that businesses can reduce their carbon footprint, and benefit their brand’s green credentials, through investing in peatland restoration projects. However, to make this work, buyers need to be given assurance that the climate benefits being sold are real, quantifiable, additional and permanent. The Peatland Code allows this to happen, as farmers and land managers must follow a strict set of procedures for the carbon benefits of the peatland project to be certified.

So far there are currently four validated projects under the scheme, with six under development and more in the pipeline. The four validated projects together cover 450 hectares of peatland, which equates to an estimated GHG emissions reduction of 101,944 tonnes of CO2.

“At a time when society is acutely aware of the climate and biodiversity crisis facing us all, protecting and restoring our peatlands is a vital action that benefits both,” says Clifton Bain, Director of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme.

“We urgently need to tackle the huge scale of peatland degradation, and for that we need business funding through the Peatland Code, supported by the best science to give assurance and credibility.”