What is a Carbon Footprint?

A carbon footprint is the total impact that a service or product has on the environment during its lifecycle – especially in terms of the amount of green house gasses (GHG) produced during the production, usage or disposal stages of this cycle. The amount of carbon dioxide units produced in the process is used as the key measurement in calculating your carbon footprint, and is an effective indicator of your contribution to global warming and related climatic changes.

Companies, persons, and services all have a carbon footprint, both directly and indirectly. Individuals, for example, consume electricity, services and products, and hence are accountable for a pro rata portion of the carbon emissions associated with the creation of these.

In order to combat the climate crisis, the carbon footprint concept was originated as a framework for positive action. Civil society and advocacy movements, corporate organisations and individuals all have a key role to play in terms of combating climate change, and carbon footprint reduction and carbon off-setting emerged as key action concepts.

Carbon footprint reduction vs. carbon off-setting 

Carbon footprint reduction refers to actions that can be taken to minimise one’s carbon impact, most notably by optimising energy usage and reducing unnecessary consumption.

Carbon offsetting, on the other hand, refers to proactive steps that physically reduce the amount of carbon present in the atmosphere. Although the latter concept may sound rather daunting, it can be as simple as planting a tree in your garden.

Areas such as the Amazon rainforests play a critical role to the continued sustainability of life on earth. Yet for decades, mass deforestation has seen millions of hectares of virgin rainforests razed forever. Although recent research suggests that the rate of deforestation has decreased for three years in a row, logging still continues at a frightening pace.

To compound the issue, timber is being over-exploited as an energy resource in the developing world, with the production of charcoal serving as the primary source of income for millions of people. Under such dire circumstances, trees are not harvested in a sustainable way, and already-limited resources are rapidly depleted. This, in turn, also has dire consequences for soil erosion and the preservation of ecosystems, whilst the charcoal manufacturing process contributes substantially to global carbon dioxide emissions.

Forestry privatisation: Equity does not equal sustainability

In post-apartheid South Africa,  state-owned forestry concerns were privatised with a view to facilitate Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Emerging players subsequently acquired state assets using venture capital and empowerment loans, all of which had to be repaid. Faced with the urgent need to turn a profit and create value for dividend-hungry shareholders, many of these emerging South African logging concerns necessarily have taken to maximising their harvesting infrastructure, whilst largely disregarding the need to replenish this natural resource.

Having over-exploited our forests, which serve as atmospheric stabilisers, South Africa has been more part of the problem and less part of the solution to climate change.

The historic absence of a national timber certification standard and rigorously applied regulation also contributed to the persistence of non-sustainable logging practices in South Africa.

Facing increasingly competitive market conditions, many secondary consumers of wood similarly buy their timber from the cheapest source – local or international – on a no-questions-asked basis, rather than demanding proof of sustainable resource management practices from their suppliers.

The Carbon Monitoring Action Group recently fingered South Africa as one of the biggest carbon emissions culprits in the world .

We’re currently responsible for a whopping 214,000,000 tons of CO2.

We were only out-emitted by China’s Huaneng Power International, and then not by all that big a percentage. (Yes, Eskom brings you darkness as well as embarrassment).

 In tandem, South Africa’s tree-felling and coal-burning track record has left a lot of carbon egg on our country’s face.

Yet in 2008, the latter seems set to change:

Tree at last, tree at last..! 

Government has identified the Eastern Cape and KZN provinces as key focal points for development in the forestry sector, with reforestation playing a vital part in this strategy. Between R20bn and R30bn will be invested over the next five years, and SA Climate Crisis will observe this project’s progress with keen interest.

In terms of a macro-economic policy framework, the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (Asgi-SA) has also earmarked forestry as a key growth area. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has also drafted a separate sector strategy to deal with the challenges facing the forestry sector as a result of years of neglect.

There is a lot of scope for action and improvement. There is also a lot of scope for using your consumer choices to compel producers to demand carbon accountability from their suppliers.

Keep watching this space in 2008 for more information about carbon footprint management and how consumers can use their  buying power to encourage supply chain carbon accountability…

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3 Responses

  1. Thank you for answering the question I asked here: Notes from underground: Carbon footprints?

  2. You’re welcome! One of the key objectives of this blog as to educate people about the climate crisis, and hence a lot of the core terms and concepts will be explored at length. Be sure to pop in back periodically, or simply subscribe to the RSS for regular updates.

    Regards,

    SA Climate Crisis

  3. Thanks, I’ve added you to my blogroll.

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