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Should we calculate carbon handprint alongside carbon footprint?

Should we calculate carbon handprint alongside carbon footprint?

30.3.2023 – Carbon handprint aims at capturing the positive climate impacts that a company produces to its’ clients or to the society at large through its’ products and services.

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Measuring carbon footprint to show the negative climate impacts caused by business activities has become mainstream in both large and small companies. Alongside this development, the concept of carbon handprint has begun to evolve to meet the need to describe the positive effects generated by individuals, companies, and other actors. Carbon handprint aims at capturing the positive climate impacts that a company produces to its’ clients or to the society at large through its’ products and services.

Over the past 15 years, the concept of handprint has been developed simultaneously by several parties. One generally recognized definition of handprint does not however exist and so far, there are significant differences in defining it. One of the clearest differing views is related to how the actor’s own footprint and handprint relate to each other: some researchers accept that the reductions in the actor’s own footprint can be included in the actor’s handprint, and some clearly distinguish the reductions in the actor’s own footprint from the handprint benefit produced by the actor.

One of the clearest definitions and delineations that emerged from our study was

“A handprint refers to the beneficial environmental impacts that organisations can achieve and communicate by offering products and services that reduce the footprints of others. A carbon handprint is the reduction of the carbon footprint of others.”

Pajula, T., Vatanen, S., Behm, K., Grönman, K., Lakanen, L., Kasurinen, H., & Soukka, R. (2021). Carbon handprint guide: V. 2.0 Applicable for environmental handprint. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

When examining various studies, both clear similarities and differences were found regarding the nature, purpose, need and mechanisms of the handprint. The literature emphasized converging views on the main reasons for the need for a handprint: bringing a positive, agency-oriented perspective alongside a negative perspective focused on disadvantages, the opportunity created by the handprint to scale the actor’s positive societal impacts, and the potential of the handprint as a strategic tool guiding the company’s operations. In addition, especially in the newer publications, the need to further develop the concept of handprint and to systematize thinking related to handprint and its parallel concepts was strongly emphasized.

However, the literature review also highlighted clearly differing views, as well as issues that only some of the researchers raised. In addition to the above-mentioned discussion whether the reduction of the actor’s own footprint can be included in the actor’s handprint, researchers have asked whether the actions that generate the handprint should be voluntary and intentional or does the motivation that triggers the actions make any difference. There are also a variety of questions regarding especially handprint calculations that still call for clarification.

One calculation challenge is related to whether the collective nature of the handprint benefits can or should somehow be considered. The creation of a handprint is rarely, if ever, a result of the actions of only one actor. In addition, it is possible to produce a collective handprint benefit with the help of several actors, and reasonably claim that the benefit would not have occurred if even one actor had been left out.

Quantitatively, the challenge is to determine the actor’s share of the handprint, while taking into account all synergies, trade-offs between different impact categories and the risks of double counting. In qualitative terms, allocation is about who should be rewarded and what kind of actions are thus encouraged to be taken by the actors. While the possibility for the quantitative division of a handprint among all actors in a value chain has been discussed in some studies, in practice, making such a mutually agreed division may not be feasible or possible. For this reason, it is particularly important for the actors to identify what part of the avoided emissions or carbon removals belong to the entire value chain, to determine their own weight in the generation of avoided emissions or removals and only claim handprint benefit from actions where their role has been essential.

Another significant calculation challenge is related to the determination of the baseline. The baseline is used in the generally accepted comparative calculation method, in which the emission benefit of a product or service is compared to the benefit generated by the corresponding reference solution. In comparative calculation, the handprint is created as the difference between the footprints of these two solutions. The advantage of the comparative calculation method is that when using a well-chosen baseline, innovations are rewarded and, on the other hand, it is not possible to create a handprint by acting in accordance with the baseline alone. The choice of baseline plays a major role in the calculation; A loosely defined baseline increases the size of the handprint unjustifiably.

The studies also highlighted the need to consider possible trade-off impacts for other environmental impact categories and other dimensions of sustainable development apart from the environmental impact category under consideration. The so-called rebound effect also came to the fore: it should be noted that in some cases a decrease in one carbon footprint may lead to an increase in the carbon footprint of another. In addition, previous studies highlighted that the fact that a handprint can be calculated for a product or a service, is not in itself a guarantee of the overall ethicality, acceptability or necessity of a product or a service. The existence of a positive handprint does not eliminate the need to reduce the actor’s, product’s, or service’s own footprint.

As a result of the literature review, it was found that there is demand for a tool such as handprint thinking alongside footprint thinking that only focuses on the negative effects of operations. With the help of handprint thinking, companies can measure and scale the positive impacts of their operations and strategically steer their operations towards solving big, global problems. However, in the current operating context with a growing number and variety of different environmental claims, for the handprint to evolve into a widespread and widely accepted concept, harmonization and development of the definitions, concepts, calculation methods and communication practices are required. Now the calculation methods still leave the actors room for interpretation, for example, regarding the assumptions, boundaries, and limitations used in the calculation. This emphasizes the importance of transparency, clarity, and openness in result communication. It is important to deliver the result communication in a manner that also enables the wider audience to get a full grasp on what products or services the handprint exactly contains and how it has been calculated.

At its best, equipped with openness and transparency, handprint thinking has significant potential to serve as a strategic indicator and a tool for creating added value in customer relationships. In addition, positive approach makes improvement opportunities visible and provides encouragement in the face of global challenges such as climate change, water crisis, and biodiversity loss.

The text is based on Elina Ruoho’s thesis Determining the carbon footprint calculation method and it was originally published in the Baltic Rim Economies overview 5/2022 publication.

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Maila Herva

Quality and Sustainability Director
Granlund Oy

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