Start with the understanding that climate change is likely the most significant issue affecting the world today. The rise in global temperatures seen as a direct result of industrial activity affects weather patterns, the severity of storms, agriculture, and the rise of ocean levels. This means that any activity that increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere makes these effects worse. Conversely, any activity that reduces the amount of greenhouse gases (either released or, better yet, in the atmosphere) improves the situation.
From the viewpoint of an organization such as a manufacturing plant, office, store, or service location, it may not be obvious which activities affect climate change or what can be changed to make improvements. Organizations that have implemented an environmental management system (EMS) such as those defined by the ISO 14001 standard have some tools available to help figure this out.
Start with the concept of an environmental impact. This is anything where an activity carried out by the organization changes the natural environment in either an adverse or beneficial manner. Each organization defines its own methods for defining whether a particular impact is significant. This may include how often the impact happens, its magnitude, the area over which the impact is spread, and other factors.
Next, we have the concept of an environmental aspect. This is anything that the organization can control or influence which will have an impact on the natural environment. By using a life cycle analysis, the organization can look from the ultimate source of any materials or energy used, through the processes in the organization’s facilities, all the way to the eventual disposal of any wastes and the products themselves. Energy and materials used for transportation and packaging along the way can also be included.
Put the concepts of environmental aspects and significant impacts together, and you have significant aspects. These are all the activities that the organization can control or influence, throughout the lifecycle of the products or services, which have a significant impact (positive or negative) on the environment. Note also that an influence in one area may appear to be minor, but many similar impacts may be added together to come up with one significant aspect. An example of this is driving a forklift versus combining all transportation stages under the organization’s control.
What kinds of significant aspects are there related to climate change?
Consider some direct impacts first. These are activities where emission of greenhouse gases is controlled by the organization. Some examples include:
- heating a facility using fossil fuel,
- burning fossil fuel to produce steam or process heat,
- internal combustion engines used for transportation,
- renewable power generation such as a windmill or solar panels,
- methane (or other greenhouse gas) release from chemical reactions,
- refrigerant use in cooling systems.
There are also indirect impacts such as:
- the source(s) of purchased electricity,
- resources and energy used in producing input materials:
- plastics – crude oil production, refining, polymerization, processing…
- metals – mining, refining, alloying, sizing, shaping, processing…
- wood – harvesting, sizing, treating…
- chemicals – oil or natural products, processing, distilling, reacting…
- transportation between processes for all materials and products,
- gases released during product end-of-life decay,
- intermediate treatment and handling of wastes,
- end-of-life for waste resulting from production, offices, lunchrooms, etc.
- Construction of a new facility may change the land use where it is built, removing vegetation.
- Materials used for construction, such as steel and cement, may cause significant release of carbon dioxide in their production.
- Facilities can be renovated to upgrade energy management with passive solar heating, improved insulation, more efficient furnaces and so on. In these cases, there is a trade-off between the resulting improvements and the direct impact of the renovation activities.
- Property owned or managed by the organization might act as a carbon sink if trees grow on it but might also be treated with fertilizer or other chemicals, causing an adverse impact.
In summary, an organization’s role in affecting climate change can be determined. A detailed analysis of all activities, materials, products, and services which are either controlled or influenced by the organization needs to be carried out. This analysis will identify all the ways in which the organization affects the environment and can use used to determine which of those aspects are significant. The total impact is also referred to as a ‘carbon footprint.’