Towards publicly available, trusted product carbon footprints (PCFs)

Lead PI: Dr. Christoph Johannes Meinrenken , , Tamar Eilam

Unit Affiliation: Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management (SPM)

January 2021 - December 2023
Project Type: Research Outreach


Upwards of 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions (henceforth “carbon emissions”) are embodied in the products we make, sell, and use (Blanco et al. 2016) – and decarbonizing these products therefore holds enormous potential in reaching the goal of staying within a 1.5 ̊C global warming. However, the breakdown of these carbon emissions to most individual products (product carbon footprint, or PCF) is not known, thus making it difficult (i) for consumers to make informed purchasing decisions; and (ii) for companies to reduce their emissions associated with the products in their supply chains. The goal of this project is to overcome this lack of transparency in PCFs. In addition to assessing accuracy levels and verification approaches for publicly available PCFs, the main research question of the project is whether a data structure and granularity for PCFs can be identified that serves as an optimum middle ground of two needs that have conflicted in the past: On the one hand, academics tend towards higher granularity, partially motivated by an objective to provide consumers with as much information about a product as possible (even if not always verifiable). On the other hand, this very granularity actually deters companies from making the PCFs of their products public because the PCFs could reveal proprietary information and trade secrets, such as suppliers and manufacturing techniques. As a co-benefit, a standardized, uniform structure of public PCFs also renders PCFs more amenable to interactive visualizations, thus further promoting transparency (but visualization is not the focus of this proposal).