Circular guide

Carbon Footprint

Didactic Units 3.1


The concept of ecological footprint has its roots in the first half of the 1990s. Proposed by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, respectively PhD student and professor at British Columbia University, this tool represents one of the most classic indicators that can be used for the description of the environmental impacts associated with human activity. Specifically, based on the concept of load capacity, this indicator is aimed at describing and quantifying the use (or overuse) of the resources made available by our planet. Over the years, other “footprints” have developed that can be used as indicators of the pressure exerted by man on the environment. Among these we find the Carbon Footprint which, while representing one of the components calculated within the same ecological footprint, has acquired its own independence over the years.

This can be defined as the amount of CO 2 equivalent resulting from the total greenhouse gas emissions associated directly or indirectly with a product, a service or organization . Given that climate change currently represents one of the main challenges of our century, as evidenced also by the ambitious goal, envisaged by the Paris Agreement, to contain the increase in temperatures by the end of the century well below 2°C, we understand the importance of an indicator of the impact of human activities on the climate, such as the carbon footprint. This, thanks to the high versatility, has different fields of application, ensuring an immediate assessment of the environmental sustainability of products, services and organizations.


The measurement of the carbon footprint is based on internationally recognized standards specific to the subject of the analysis. In the case of products or services, the reference standard is represented by the recent standard UNI EN ISO 14067 Greenhouse gases – Carbon footprint of products – Requirements and guidelines for quantification and Communication “, which refers to the previous standards UNI EN ISO 14040 (” Environmental management – Life cycle assessment – Principles and reference framework “) and UNI EN ISO 14044 (“Environmental management – Life cycle assessment – Requirements and guidelines”). This, based on the Life Cycle Assessment approach, allows to calculate the emissions altering climate generated during all the life stages of the analyzed product (extraction, transformation of raw materials, production, distribution, use and end of life). As regards organizations, the reference standards are represented by Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG Protocol for Project Accounting) and the UNI EN ISO 14064 standard. Specifically, the latter consists of three documents, listed below, which can be used individually or in an integrated manner:

  • ISO 14064-1 “Greenhouse gases – Part 1 : Specification for the quantification, monitoring and reporting of project emissions and removals”, focused on the design and development requirements of organizations’ emission inventories.
  • ISO 14064-2 “Greenhouse gases – Part 2: Specification for the quantification, monitoring and reporting of project emissions and removals”, which establishes the requirements for the quantification, reporting and monitoring of reductions and removals of greenhouse gases from the atmospheric sector.
  • ISO 14064-3 “Greenhouse gases – Part 3: Specification and guidance for validation and verification”, which finally specifies the requirements and guidelines for the validation and verification, carried out by certification bodies, of the information contained in the inventories.

The object of these rules is the creation of emission inventories that allow the quantification and subsequent assessment of the company’s carbon footprint. The emissions contained in these documents, according to the provisions of the regulations, are categorized into three main items: Scope 1 in which the direct emissions of the organization are counted; Scope 2 indirect emissions deriving from energy consumption; Scope 3 which finally includes the additional indirect emissions not falling within the previous Scope. Both for the Carbon Footprint of the product or service and for the emission inventories of the organizations, the greenhouse gases contained in the Kyoto Protocol such as carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) are considered for the analysis, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), perfluorocarbons (PFC) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). By virtue of the different contribution to global warming, expressed through the Global Warming Potential (GWP), these will be reported in terms of CO2 equivalent.


The international community, the business world and civil society are gradually becoming awareness of the need for a change in production and consumption models. Companies play a role of primary importance in the fight against climate change , as on the one hand, the increasingly stringent legislation in this regard calls the industrial sector to increasing efforts to implement mitigation actions, from the risks deriving from the intensification of the effects of climate change, to which the same companies are subjected, are more and more evident.

According to the EU 2019 Guidelines on reporting climate-related information ,Climate Change primarily determines physical risks, deriving from possible material damage caused by extreme weather phenomena (with consequences such as damage to infrastructure, workers, machinery, finished products, distribution chain and supply chain); secondly there are those of a financial nature (linked to the management of the former) and finally those of transition, which include the compliance risks (due for example to the regulatory evolution) the market risks (deriving from the shift of consumer requests towards increasingly sustainable products) and the technological risks deriving from the need to adopt, following the regulatory development, the most advanced emission containment technologies.

In this perspective, the adoption of tools such as the calculation of the Carbon Footprint both at the product or service level, and at the organization level through emission inventories, represents a valid tool to describe and understand where the environmental impacts and risks associated with climate change are concentrated. Calculating the Carbon Footprint is therefore configured as an environmental accounting tool, through which companies can learn about their environmental performance, improve communication with their stakeholders and strengthen their “green reputation” . Again the Carbon Footprint becomes a corporate management tool, able to make people understand the inefficiencies and environmental weaknesses of the corporate production cycles, followed by the implementation of a carbon management plan aimed at containing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as upon reaching Carbon Neutrality


The development of a Carbon Neutrality strategy can therefore represent one of the natural developments, following the calculation of the Carbon Footprint. This term refers specifically to a product, service or organization whose net contribution to climate-altering emissions into the atmosphere is zero. The path to be taken by organizations to achieve this goal is the subject of a specific procedure described by the BSI PAS 2060: 2010 standard. According to the provisions of the latter, the procedure can be summarized in 4 main phases

The first step involves the calculation of the carbon footprint of the product or organization, using the previously mentioned standardized and internationally recognized methodologies;


This is followed by the development of a management plan (carbon management) and drafting of the declaration of commitment to carbon neutrality (contained in the plan itself). This will include the timing for achieving the objective, the mitigation measures, the residual emissions that are expected to be offset, the methods for offsetting as well as the types of credits intend to be used for this purpose;

Once the reduction measures envisaged in the management plan have been implemented, the carbon footprint will be recalculated with the aim of identifying the residual emissions that will be subject of the next compensation program. These can be offset by obtaining emission credits and their cancellation (technical term indicating the reporting of credits in specific, independent and publicly available registers), a procedure which is necessary to avoid problems of double counting or double sales;


Once the objectives of reducing and offsetting the emissions produced have been achieved, the subject will be able to issue the declaration of achievement of climate neutrality, which can be spent with their stakeholders.


The achievement of carbon neutrality, as can be understood from the path described in its essential phases above, provides in addition to simple mitigation, the implementation of compensatory measures (carbon offset) for residual emissions. Following these initiatives, the release of carbon credits is envisaged, indicating the removal of one ton of CO 2 equivalent from the atmosphere. These could be traded on specific markets, they qualify as real financial instruments that can be used in the fight against climate change. Their introduction dates back to the Kyoto Protocol, which included two main design mechanisms for the containment of climate-altering emissions: the first is represented by the Clean Developement Mechanism (CDM) which includes the compensation projects to be activated in developing countries (according to the provisions of article 12 of the Protocol) and whose implementation is followed by the release of Certified Emission Reduction (CER). The second defined Joint Implementation (JI) groups the compensatory projects developed in industrialized countries (Annex I of the Kyoto Protocol) and whose implementation involves the release of credits called Emission Reduction Unit (ERU).

Over the years, the credits deriving from projects that do not fall within the aforementioned planning mechanisms have been added, available to public and private subjects who want to enhance their efforts and commitments in about the reduction of climate-altering emissions. These credits defined as Verified Emission Reduction (VERs), can be used within the so-called voluntary markets. Today, interested parties can resort to different standards which, while presenting specific differences, retain a series of common requirements such as the eligibility criteria (i.e. the categories and project dimensions provided for by the specific standard), the principle of additionality, the methodologies for monitoring and validating the project as well as the certification of the generated credits. Among the most widely used standards today it is possible to mention the Gold Standard and the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) developed by the IETA (International Emission Trading Association) .

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