A five-year partnership between Pepsico, the Earth Institute and Columbia Engineering at Columbia University has yielded a new lifecycle analysis software tool designed to help companies assess the carbon footprint of their products far more quickly and with greater detail than ever before. The software can analyze thousands of products simultaneously, within a matter of minutes.
Conventional lifecycle analysis involves a great amount of time and labor because it relies on manual input performed on a case-by-case basis. With this new tool in hand, global companies like Pepsico, which has had 1,137 separate products analyzed in pilot tests of the new software, will be better equipped to manage their carbon footprint while growing and updating their lines.
Mining big data for lifecycle analysis
According to Columbia Engineering, studies leading up to the new software began in 2007 at the Earth Institute’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy with the initial goal of standardizing carbon footprint assessments and labeling for products in the U.S and the U.K.
Early versions of the software began with a reliance on manual measurements. By 2009, the researchers had graduated to using automated data mining systems that require far less user input, taking advantage of the enormous quantities of data that are being amassed by global companies.
The software involves combining three new methodologies, resulting in a system that provides “very microscopic level of detail” far greater than other estimating techniques.
Especially noteworthy is the system’s ability to predict emission factors through modeling, eliminating the need to manually match a commercially available lifecycle database with the materials and packaging of an individual product.
That turns a laborious task into an almost “push-button” operation that can be mastered by persons without specialized training in lifecycle analysis, enabling companies to be more quick and nimble in new designing products and tweaking old ones.
Beyond the carbon footprint
Aside from enabling individual companies to speed up their transition to less carbon-intensive operations, the new software could also smooth the way to new consumer-friendly standards for assessing lifecycles at the point of purchase, much in the way that consumers use nutrition labeling.
In turn, that could lead to new marketing and promotional opportunities. Consumers are already indicating their preference for products made using alternative energy, as a recent study commissioned by the wind turbine company, Vestas, has demonstrated.
With lifecycle carbon footprint information widely available through simple, standardized labels, companies would also have an incentive to lean on their supply chains to shrink their carbon footprints.
The Columbia research team is still working on further enhancements to the software. In the meantime, the team has already begun thinking about applying the basic principles to other elements of lifecycle impacts, particularly water consumption.
The study has been available in the online version of the Journal of Industrial Ecology, and it will appear in the October print edition.
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