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Handprints help companies find new ways to become more sustainable.

Carbon handprints are more than just a number

An interview with Tiina Pajula, Senior Principal, AFRY, Finland

What exactly is a carbon handprint?
It's a positive impact that helps others reduce their carbon footprint. You do it by providing new technologies, energy solutions, raw materials, or business models that replace something currently being used.

Is the handprint a number?
Yes, it's a numerical score you get when once you’re able to quantify how many kilograms of CO2 you could help someone else cut. You can score an individual product, but you can also assign a number to quantify total yearly output or the product portfolio of a particular division of your company.

Does having a handprint reduce your footprint?
No! This is the biggest mistake companies make. They quantify their footprint, and their handprint, then subtract the handprint score from the footprint score and say they’re carbon neutral, even carbon negative.

But the handprint and the footprint express different things. Generally speaking, they should not be combined. Trying to mix them could actually be seen as greenwashing.

Why is it wrong to subtract the handprint from the footprint?
There are some situations where you might combine them, but it would create a mess. The footprint measures actual reductions in carbon emissions. The handprint measures emissions avoided – that is, they never happened. It’s not fair to compare something that never happened to emissions you actually create. Most companies do this by accident because they misunderstand the concept. But we need the discussion to make it clear.

Are there any international standards for calculating handprints?  
Not yet. That's why we started to develop a method for quantifying carbon handprint. It’s 80% based on existing standards – of life cycle assessment, of carbon footprint, etc. We only added one specific element: defining how you select the baseline. Choosing your baseline is critical, because the worse your baseline, the better your handprint. That part is not yet standardized, but hopefully it will be in the future.

What's the benefit to a company of having a carbon handprint?
Companies want to communicate their positive impact, and quantification helps. But it has turned out to be useful for other things too, such as product development. We have many companies which, during a product development phase, felt, “Wow, this is a very green product and should have a handprint.” But after some analysis, they realized there wouldn’t be one, and this was a shock, and an eye-opener.

But it turned out to be a very useful way for companies to identify where they could improve. So it can be used for strategic decision making.

Back in 2018 you co-authored a report which stated that the use of the handprint clearly looks set to increase. Has it done so at the rate you expected, or hoped for?
It has increased, but I’ve run into different types of handprints, and not all are in accordance with the baseline approach. It’s country-specific, too. Canada is really excited about this, but in Sweden, they are worried of being accused of greenwashing. So it depends. I think it's important that once you do it right, it should not be seen as greenwashing.

Huawei is driving a more bits, less watts” approach – digitalization and low carbonization to enable green development. What more would you like to see companies like Huawei doing?
In order to track resource use, you need lots of data on the product. The more information you have on various processes, the more timely you will be in doing the right things. I hope this sort of data will be made available automatically in the future.

Should policymakers demand that handprints be compiled and published?
I give this a 50-50 possibility of happening. In the EU, for instance, some politicians are developing a new taxonomy, to establish a list of environmentally sustainable economic activities. And there have been discussions about whether the handprint approach could play a role there. But I don't think it will happen any time soon. This does divide authorities.

This year alone we’ve seen droughts, wildfires, floods – horrific tragedies. But perhaps in a terrible way, the “shock and awe” will wake people up to the urgent nature of global climate change?
Not all companies have been interested in sustainable development and climate mitigation. Now, the problems are becoming too obvious to ignore.

But again, it's different in different continents, industrial sectors, markets. Some companies are already taking this seriously. Some talk a lot, but don’t do much. The rest don’t really care yet. Luckily, at least in Europe, investors and authorities are pushing more. I think now that investors have joined this discussion, it’s a signal that companies really need to start thinking about this.

Five years from now, what would be the ideal state of play in terms of companies’ and consumers’ and policymakers’ relationship with the carbon handprint?
I hope companies have implemented it in a way that they really see the benefit of it, using it for product development, strategic decision-making, and customer communication. I hope it’s widespread and well understood, so people know what it means and, just as important, what it does not mean, because now there’s a bit of confusion around this and still lots of misunderstanding.

So there's work to do to spread the knowledge and educate each other. I’m glad Huawei is writing about this!

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