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Low-Carbon Biz

Method for carbon footprinting thousands of products developed

Researchers at Columbia University’s Earth Institute have developed a new software that can rapidly gauge the carbon footprint of thousands of products simultaneously.

Working with the institute’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy and PepsiCo, Inc., the initial goal of the project was to assess and standardize PepsiCo’s projections of the amount of carbon emitted by a product from the time it is made, packaged, distributed and up until it is disposed.

The researchers built a “life cycle analysis” database used to evaluate the environmental impacts of a product, covering around 1,137 Pepsi products. From there, they came up with three new techniques that work together, allowing them to calculate thousands of footprints in a matter of a few minutes, with minimal user input.

Until now, life cycle analysis is expensive and can only perform one product at a time, which entails large requirements for personnel, skills and time. Few companies have enough employees with specialized expertise, the institute noted.

According to the Earth Institute, the key component of the software is a model that generates estimated emission indicators for materials, eliminating the need for manual mapping of a product’s ingredients and packaging materials.

Christoph Meinrenken, project leader and associate research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Columbia Engineering, said the automatically generated indicators will help non-experts “calculate approximate carbon footprints and alleviate resource constraints for companies embarking on large-scale product carbon footprinting.”

The software conformed with the guidelines set by the nonprofit World Resources Institute, which provides standards for carbon footprint auditing, Mr. Meinrenken added.

What makes the technique more interesting is that it was inspired by fields outside environmental science.

“At companies like Facebook or Netflix, engineers employ statistical wizardry to mine vast datasets and essentially teach computers to predict, for instance, who will like a particular movie,” said Mr. Meinrenken.

Similar methods were used to dig out detailed product and supply chain data. “Using such data to estimate how much the environment will ‘like’ certain products and services is especially rewarding,” he said.

Consumers will be able to make more informed choices, as the information can also help companies create and gauge ways to minimize their products’ impacts.

“The newly developed software promises to not only save time and money for companies like PepsiCo, but also to provide fresh insights into how companies measure, manage, and reduce their carbon footprint in the future,” said Al Halvorsen, senior director of sustainability at PepsiCo.

Currently, the researchers are now eyeing to use the same method from carbon to other areas like water use.

“Fast carbon footprinting is a great example of how academic methodologies coupled with modern data processing and statistical tools can be brought to life and unlock their power in the real world,” said Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy. – EcoSeed Staff

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