Kickstarting Product Carbon Footprinting in China

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    On January 5, the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning (CAEP) released the China Products Carbon Footprint Factors Database (中国产品全生命周期温室气体排放系数集), the first open, transparent, and continuously updated product carbon footprinting (PCF) emission factor database in China. The development of this database involved voluntary contributions from 54 researchers representing 24 leading institutions under the China City Greenhouse Gas Working Group (CCG). The publication of the database set the foundation for product-level carbon footprint quantification and has great significance for carbon reduction in supply chains. As the Chinese market evolves to meet increasing green demands from regulators and consumers, this database unlocks the possibility for nationally standardized PCF and potentially kickstarts green product labeling in China. This article will explore the concept of PCF and the content of the Chinese dataset.

    PCF: Quantifying the Climate Impact of a Product’s Life Cycle

    PCF is a technique to assess the global warming impacts associated with a product over its entire life cycle. A typical PCF covers emissions generated during raw material extraction and distribution, product manufacturing, distribution and retail, use phase, and disposal and recycling, as illustrated in the graph below. Such assessment is usually undertaken to evaluate the product’s environmental performance for enhancement and internal comparison or to apply for verified green labels for the product.

    Source: BSI

    For PCF to be authoritative and comparable across different products, it is essential to establish a consensus on emission factors for a range of materials and resources involved in product life cycles. While there are international PCF standards, such as the PAS 2050 developed by the British Standards Institution in 2008, the life-cycle environmental impact of a given raw material may not be exactly comparable across geographies and markets. Therefore, the establishment of a regional product-level emission factor database can offer more localized and accurate guidance. According to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, several countries have already developed and implemented national PCF databases, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, South Korea, Switzerland, and the US.

    An Overview of the China Products Carbon Footprint Factors Database

    China’s first PCF factors database was created in accordance with principles and methodology outlined in ISO 14067:2018, the international guidance on product-level carbon footprint quantification. Emission factors in the database have been standardized across different data sources to represent all GHG by CO2 equivalent. For conversion of other GHG into CO2 equivalent, 100-year global warming potentials (GWP100) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR6 report were referenced. Because the time of data collection for all referenced public sources vary, researchers have recalculated all emission factors using the average carbon emissions from China’s power grid in 2020.

    The database currently includes emission factors for several sectors and processes, including:

    1. Energy Products (172 items): this includes various energy products, such as coal, oil and gas, thermal, renewables, including solar and hydrogen power. The average carbon emissions from China’s power grid in 2020 are also included.
    2. Industrial Products (378 items): this includes metal, non-metal, organic chemicals, polymer chemicals, rubber, refrigeration components, textiles, electronics, photovoltaic equipment, and other general equipment.
    3. Household Products (361 items): this includes food products, clothing products, water usage for different processes, household appliances, and consumer goods.
    4. Transportation (44 items): this includes traffic emissions from road traffic, aviation, railway, water transport, elevators and escalators, and various modes of cargo and freight.
    5. Waste Treatment (60 items): this includes municipal solid waste, industrial sludge, industrial solid waste, hazardous waste, domestic sewage, industrial wastewater, agricultural wastewater, and leachate.
    6. Carbon Sink (66 items): this includes various forest products as well as afforestation and reforestation efforts. All emission factors within this sector have negative values to represent their absorption of GHG from the atmosphere.

    The life-cycle emissions are sorted into three categories:

    1. Upstream Emissions: this includes electricity usage and transportation emissions for production activities.
    2. Downstream Emissions: this includes emissions generated in the product’s use phase. However, indirect emissions from electricity in the use phase are excluded, since such usage tends to vary greatly across users and can be accounted for in household electricity consumption. Emissions from waste treatment at the end of life are also excluded from this category.
    3. Waste Management Emissions: instead of providing waste-related emissions for each product outlined in the previous categories, users need to select the type of waste corresponding to the product in question at its end of life from the Waste Treatment sector.

    As an open and transparent document, the database also provided detailed sources, uncertainty, time of data collection for every item, as well as principal researcher responsible for every data point. Users can access the database from an online portal via or download the spreadsheet tool from CAEP’s website.

    A Step Towards Verified Green Product Labeling

    Products that have undergone verified PCF can obtain product carbon footprint labels, such as those issued by UK non-profit The Carbon Trust. These labels help sustainability-minded consumers identify products with validated emissions data and carbon reduction advantages and make informed purchase decisions. As an example, South Korea has established its national product emission factor database since 1998 and introduced voluntary product carbon labeling (called CFP labels) in 2009. As of August 31, 2020, a total of 3,948 products from 446 companies have obtained Korean CFP labels. Samples of CFP labels are shown below.

    Source: Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute (KEITI)

    Despite increasing attention to eco-friendly attributes and the environmental impact from consumers worldwide, verified sustainability information on products lag significantly. While consumers want to make environmentally friendly choices, many are concerned about greenwashing under the current lack of green claim regulation for products. In 2021, consumer rights group Euroconsumers conducted a survey in Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Spain regarding green consumption. It found that 95% of respondents always refer to product labels to guide their purchasing decisions, and 81% felt that labels should highlight the environmental impact of products. However, as much as 53% of the consumers admitted to not being able to tell between true and false green claims.

    Similarly, in China, sustainability influences consumption choices like never before. A PwC study in 2021 found that 71% of Chinese consumers want to purchase products that value and support environmental objectives, and 41% consider the current lack of available sustainable products as the main obstacle to making such choices. Moreover, developing a robust and reliable green product labeling system is in line with the country’s carbon reduction agenda, as green consumption is one of the key action items in China’s climate directives. The Working Guidance for Carbon Dioxide Peaking and Carbon Neutrality, released by the State Council in October 2021, detailed that the nation will expand the supply and consumption of products and advocate living patterns that are green and low-carbon. Establishing a nationally recognized green labeling system for products in China can greatly assist this endeavor and prevent rampant greenwashing in the process. With the first national product-level emission factor database published, a future in which the public chooses Chinese products based on verified emissions information may be within reach.