Using the Product Environmental Footprint method to achieve low-carbon procurement

2020-04-24 Johanna Suikkanen, Satu Turula and Reetta Huomo

More than 50% of the overall carbon footprint of public procurement is generated by the procurement activities of municipalities and joint municipal authorities. In 2018, the carbon footprint for the procurement and investment activities of the City of Helsinki, the number one city in Finland in terms of procurement costs, amounted to 0.81 Mt CO2e. In order to make Helsinki’s carbon neutrality goal a reality by 2035, new policies are needed to promote low-carbon procurement.

While the comparability of different products’ climate impact is vitally important for public procurement, the discrepancies in methods may easily yield incomparable data. As a solution, the European Commission released a proposal in 2013, introducing the Product Environmental Footprint method. The Finnish Environment Institute SYKE and the City of Helsinki decided to investigate the viability of the method in procurement activities.

Product Environmental Footprint

The PEF or Product Environmental Footprint determines the environmental impacts of a product during its life cycle. At the moment, the method consists of 16 environmental impact categories, one of which is climate change. The method, developed in Europe-wide cooperation, can be used to examine a product’s influence on ecotoxicity, acidification, eutrophication and the depletion of natural resources, among other things.

The PEFCR rules for a product category indicate the key environmental impacts of the product and the point in the product’s life cycle where the impacts are created. The rules enable the product-specific comparison of the computational results. The rules also specify which information to collect directly from manufacturing plants and at the product chain level and how to use the initial data from PEF-approved databases. The databases are only accessible free of charge when used for calculations under the PEFCR rules.

One of the challenges in terms of public procurement is that the PEFCR rules only apply to 17 product categories at the moment. For example, PEFCR rules have already been set for detergents, indoor paint and some foodstuffs, such as dairy products. By 2021, rules will be developed for five new categories, such as artificial turf and clothing.

Carbon footprint tested in Helsinki’s dairy product procurement

The Product Environmental Footprint came up in the market dialogue on the environmental and sustainability viewpoints of dairy products initiated by the City of Helsinki. The considered topics included promoting the availability of comparable carbon footprint data and using it as part of competitive bidding. As PEFCR rules for dairy products are already in place, we were brainstorming ways to use carbon footprint data in competitive bidding. We also considered the means of preparing the market to fulfil the climate goals of the public sector.

The market dialogue and expert hearings made it clear that the carbon footprint calculation of dairy products is not yet consistent enough for using carbon footprint data as a standard of comparison in competitive bidding. However, the carbon footprint data of a high-volume product could be analysed with the PEFCR rules as part of the contract. As the City of Helsinki only intended to calculate the carbon footprint of the product, the database fees became an issue with the PEF. Moreover, there were doubts about the rapid expiration of the database licences and the ambiguity of how and when the rules would be updated. In the end, it was decided that the greatest impact in terms of climate and environmental goals would be achieved in this procurement through other types of criteria based on the climate impact of the production chain as well as measures during the validity of the contract.

However, the consistent calculation method enabled by the Product Environmental Footprint is considered important and the City of Helsinki plans to re-evaluate the options of using the method in the next competitive bidding for dairy products. It is also essential to remember that observing climate impacts does not eliminate the need for more extensive sustainability analyses.

Tool of the future?

Expanding the Product Environmental Footprint method to apply to the essential product categories in public procurement would provide an excellent foundation for comprehensively evaluating environmental impact. At the moment, however, it does not seem likely that we will find new calculation rules for the products in public procurement that have an impact on the carbon footprint, at least in the near future.

So far, the carbon footprint has not become a common criterion in Finland outside of construction work where the nationally approved calculation method enables comparable results and the integration of carbon footprint data as part of the planning process. Moreover, legislative measures will soon be taken to set a carbon footprint limit for new construction, further promoting the usability of carbon footprint data in the industry.

The first decisions on the use of the PEF should arrive next year. According to the circular economy action plan of the EU, released in March, the plan is to promote the use of the Product Environmental Footprint in verifying environmental performance. According to the Finnish government programme, including the carbon footprint and the Product Environmental Footprint in the Act on Public Procurement and Concession Contracts is possible. For these reasons alone, it is important to collect practical views of the viability and challenges of the method. Therefore, we encourage everyone to share their experiences of using the Product Environmental Footprint in their procurement activities.

See the recently published report to learn how to already start using the Product Environmental Footprint in public procurement!

Researcher Johanna Suikkanen, Finnish Environment Institute, Project coordinator Satu Turula, City of Helsinki and Project specialist Reetta Huomo, City of Helsinki

The City of Helsinki is involved in the “Towards Carbon Neutral Municipalities and Regions” (Canemure) project with its sub-project “Using carbon footprint criteria to promote sustainable public procurement”.

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