Limitations of Carbon Footprint as Indicator of Environmental Sustainability

Publication: Research - peer-reviewJournal article – Annual report year: 2012

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Greenhouse gas accountings, commonly referred to with the popular term carbon footprints (CFP), are a widely used metric of climate change impacts and the main focus of many sustainability policies among companies and authorities. However, environmental sustainability concerns not just climate change but also other environmental problems, like chemical pollution or depletion of natural resources, and the focus on CFP brings the risk of problem shifting when reductions in CFP are obtained at the expense of increase in other environmental impacts. But how real is this risk? Here, we model and analyze the life cycle impacts from about 4000 different products, technologies, and services taken from several sectors, including energy generation, transportation, material production, infrastructure, and waste management. By investigating the correlations between the CFP and 13 other impact scores, we show that some environmental impacts, notably those related to emissions of toxic substances, often do not covary with climate change impacts. In such situations, carbon footprint is a poor representative of the environmental burden of products, and environmental management focused exclusively on CFP runs the risk of inadvertently shifting the problem to other environmental impacts when products are optimized to become more “green”. These findings call for the use of more broadly encompassing tools to assess and manage environmental sustainability.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology (Washington)
Publication date2012
Volume46
Issue7
Pages4100-4108
ISSN0013-936X
DOIs
StatePublished
CitationsWeb of Science® Times Cited: 26
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