Carbon footprint calculations

We have an ambitious goal: to cut milk’s carbon footprint in Finland to zero by 2035. To reach that goal, we must have a detailed view of greenhouse gasses generated throughout our products’ life cycles. That is the only way we can make significant improvements in our own operation on our journey towards carbon-neutral milk.

Carbon footprint calculations are required to verify and guide emission reductions. More important than individual figures are the acts that slow down climate change.

Over 90 percent of dairy’s carbon footprint is generated in primary production. That is why working with the dairy farms is especially important. Finnish cows’ methane emissions per litre of milk have halved in 50 years with improved animal productivity, health, and nutrition. Cows today can produce more milk with the same amount of feed.

What is carbon footprint?

The carbon footprint is a single-figure or range representation of the product or activity’s greenhouse emissions throughout its lifecycle. Greenhouse gasses, such as methane, nitrogen oxide, and carbon dioxide, released by the product or activity are converted to a common format, the carbon dioxide equivalent. This results in a figure that describes the climate load created by an ingredient’s production and manufacturing, as well as transportation.

Milk’s carbon footprint

Cows convert the energy in grass into milk. This is called rumination, and its price is methane, generated in the animal’s rumen. Most of milk production’s emissions (40-50%) are created in the cow’s rumen as well as in manure storage. The second largest share (35-45%) of the carbon footprint is generated in feed production, which creates nitrous oxide. Additionally, carbon dioxide generated in different stages of the production chain, from plant energy production to transportation, forms one notable part (10-15%) of the carbon footprint.

LCA models for calculating carbon footprints for milk or other food products do not currently include the soil’s carbon balance, i.e. carbon binding in grass fields and emissions from farming peat fields (former swamps or swamp forests). Field carbon sinks and emissions should be included in these calculations for us to have an accurate picture of food’s actual carbon footprint.

All these figures – how do you calculate food’s carbon footprint?

There are various accuracy levels in the carbon footprint calculations for food. That is why it’s good to pay close attention when comparing different products and companies. Most methods rely on general estimates of a similar product’s carbon footprint, estimates that are found in external databanks. This method may lead to the product’s true carbon footprint being vastly different from the estimate, and the external figure may not provide us any opportunities to develop our production chain to reduce our carbon footprint. When looking at carbon footprints, the nutritional values of different foods, such as protein and energy content, vitamins, and minerals, should also be considered.

In practice, a carbon footprint calculation is a significant undertaking, as there are many stages to getting a single product to the store shelves and each stage has its own climate impact. There are also farm-to-farm differences to consider. Carbon footprints are calculated with a life-cycle analysis (LCA), in which the greenhouse gasses generated in the various stages of food production are allocated to the end products.

Guidelines for food’s carbon footprint calculation

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, provides guidelines for calculating food’s carbon footprint at three levels of accuracy:

  1. Level 1: IPCC-provided emission factors
  2. Level 2: Emission factors are calculated with IPCC-provided formulae and parameters
  3. Level 3 (most accurate, Valio uses this): Own, most accurate national calculation methods, factors, and parameters

Emission factors may also be picked from other general inventory databases.

It’s also possible to compensate for carbon footprints, i.e. compensate for emissions with external actions (such as forestation projects in developing countries). This does not reduce or change a product’s true carbon footprint. That is why guidelines forbid including compensations in the carbon footprint, instead stating that the carbon footprint has been compensated for. Valio carries out carbon footprint calculations for various products. Climate impact calculations do not include emission compensations – we focus on minimising the emissions in our own production chain.

Guidelines for calculating milk’s carbon footprint

Current calculations for milk’s carbon footprint are based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s formulae. The European Dairy Association EDA has used them to create carbon footprint calculation instructions for the European Commission, called the Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR).

In Finland, greenhouse emissions are reported in accordance with the Statistic Finland instructions for various reporting sectors. Greenhouse emissions from peatland, i.e. organic soil, are, in national reporting, counted in the land use, land use changes and forestry sector’s (LULUCF) emissions, which means they are not shown in statistics as part of agriculture and food production’s greenhouse emissions – not for milk or any other food.

Climate change is the global challenge of our era, with an effect on people as well. Through our own actions, however, we can help to make things better. We are aware of the environmental impacts of our operations, and we want to be part of the solution. Our goal is not just to reduce milk’s carbon footprint, it’s to cut it completely by 2035.