Data visualization tool reveals consumer products' carbon footprint

Carbon Catalogue was designed by a Columbia researcher and breaks down the carbon footprint of a product during its entire lifecycle


A researcher from Columbia University in New York has developed a data visualization tool which explores the carbon-emission levels of various consumer products and highlights the strategies companies have been employing to reduce carbon emissions.

Named Carbon Catalogue, the tool resembles a wheel with color-coded spokes and illustrates the carbon a product emits throughout its entire lifecycle – from its raw material stage, through to manufacturing, and to its eventual downstream phases – with each spoke revealing carbon information on a product when a user hovers over it.

Christoph Meinrenken, an associate research scientist at Columbia's Earth Institute and chief data scientist at environmental analytics firm CoClear, said: "We designed Carbon Catalogue, which is free and open to all, to enhance awareness of carbon sources and ways to reduce them.

"This tool can serve as an inspiration for other companies to reduce their products' emissions, especially since smaller carbon footprints often correlate with reduced production costs."

Meinrenken and his colleagues at CoClear analyzed carbon emissions data for 866 products made by 145 companies, who voluntarily submitted their data to nonprofit organization CDP (formally the Carbon Disclosure Project).

"The tool gives consumers and CDP-member companies like Nestle, Bloomberg and Dell an interactive platform to explore products' carbon footprints," Meinrenken noted.

Meinrenken, who also belongs to the Earth Institute's Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management, and his CoClear colleagues found that upwards of 75% of a product's overall emissions were generated during the supply-chain phase, such as when the raw materials are acquired or when a consumer uses it. They also found that the food and beverage industry had one of the highest upstream emissions, while the IT industry was among the industries with the highest downstream emissions.

Through their research, however, the team found that a number of companies had made "vast improvements in reducing their products' emissions". 

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