The truth about farm carbon calculators

Farmers across the globe are increasingly turning their attention to their carbon footprints particularly due to the demands of the downstream value chain regarding Scope 3 emissions reporting and reduction targets. As the world grapples with climate change, understanding and mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from farming systems has become critical. Enter farm carbon calculators: digital tools designed to estimate a farm’s carbon emissions and identify areas for improvement in farm management and farm performance.

Why farm carbon calculators matter

Farm carbon calculators are useful in raising awareness of the impact of farming on the environment, in raising visibility on sustainability in food supply chains and in identifying areas where efficiencies can be improved, and where value can be created However, the level of technical advancement of these calculators matters – basic ones offer a simple entry point for basic understanding, while advanced tools or platforms offer many opportunities and value creation.

  • Raising awareness: Advanced carbon calculators that capture primary data serve as powerful educational tools. By quantifying emissions, they not only raise awareness among farmers about their environmental impact but potentially provide a means to qualify for opportunities, such as sustainable financing and eco-labelling. When farmers see the numbers and understand the opportunities, they’re more likely to adopt sustainable practices.
  • Supply chain demands: Many supply chains now require producers to complete carbon assessments so they can report on their Scope 3 emissions and meet their reduction targets. These assessments are often mandatory for doing business. By using carbon calculators, farmers can meet these requirements and demonstrate their commitment to sustainability.
  • Identifying inefficiencies: Advanced carbon calculators are a good business diagnostic, revealing inefficiencies in production. They pinpoint areas of best practice or where emissions can be reduced, leading to potential cost savings or production gains. For instance, a farmer might discover that adjusting fertilizer application rates can significantly lower nitrous oxide emissions.

What farm carbon calculators lack

While basic farm carbon calculators serve as useful entry points into the topic of farm sustainability, they must evolve to address regulatory nuances, embrace a holistic view of sustainability (beyond carbon), and adapt to diverse farming contexts. 

Basic carbon calculators tend to demonstrate several shortcomings, such as: 

  • Simplistic metrics: Basic carbon calculators often rely on high level data (industry averages, secondary or proxy data) and provide straightforward metrics, such as total emissions in CO₂ equivalents. However, regulatory frameworks increasingly demand more nuanced, segregated data (e.g., FLAG guidelines), including specific gases (like methane or nitrous oxide) and emissions from different farm activities (e.g., livestock, energy use, or land management). Advanced platforms are typically based on full life cycle assessments (LCA) encompassing a broader range of environmental impacts and able to satisfy the complexity of emissions reporting.
  • Limited emission sources: Basic calculators focus primarily on direct emissions (e.g., emissions related to utilities use). Yet, indirect emissions (such as those embedded in purchased goods and services or supply chains – so called Scope 3) are crucial. These indirect emissions often escape the necessary detail in basic calculators’ scope yet are by far the largest contributors to a company’s GHG emissions (typically up to 80%) and therefore require much greater attention in detailing.
  • Default values: Basic calculators rely on default emission factors, which often do not accurately represent local conditions. These assumptions can lead to significant inaccuracies and potentially lead to false impressions and outcomes.
  • Complex and diverse systems: Farms vary widely in practices, crops, and livestock. Basic calculators struggle to accommodate this diversity. For instance, a dairy farm’s emissions differ significantly from those of a poultry farm. Furthermore, they do not readily scale to manage multiple farms, feed or processing activities. 
  • Scenario testing and intervention mapping: the need to measure on-farm emissions is merely the starting point. Farmers need to identify hotspots and plan for environmental footprint reduction. The most advanced tools allow users to run “what if” scenarios to prioritize emission reduction investments.
  • Greenwashing risk: Companies claiming net zero status based on basic carbon calculator results must tread carefully. The variation in outputs and robustness of the calculation methodologies can make it challenging to validate claims and keep within evolving greenwashing legislation. Beware of potential liability for greenwashing.

Often, a calculation platform based on full life cycle assessment will overcome many of the shortcomings of a basic farm carbon calculator and provide a great deal more value.

Table 1. Comparison of basic farm carbon calculators and LCA software solutions | Source: dsm-firmenich

 Basic farm toolOn-farm LCA software
Impact categoriesCarbon onlyMultiple impact categories, including carbon, water, biodiversity, land use, etc. Typically, all 16 environmental variables. Especially needed for qualification for food eco-labelling initiatives.
Emission sourcesPrimarily direct emissions (Scope 1 & 2), with limited Scope 3 functionalityDirect and indirect (Scope 1, 2, and 3) emissions accounting
Data imputNot farm-specific, mainly secondary or proxy dataFarm-specific primary data supplemented by leading databases
SystemSimple model with very limited functionalityAdvanced, catering to diverse farming practices, crops, animal types and activities
Scenario testing capability to model improvementsNoYes
ISO-certified methodologyNoUsually
Internationally recognized calculation methodologyNoYes

Key criteria for choosing the right farm carbon calculator

The most advanced and useful farm life cycle assessment platforms offer the following features: 

  • User-friendly interface: A good calculator should be easy to use, even for non-experts.
  • Comprehensive data inputs: It should accommodate various farming systems and management practices and data system connectivity.
  • Robust methodology: The calculator’s underlying methodology should be up-to-date, internationally recognized, well-researched and independently certified to ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 for life cycle assessment. 
  • Educational support: Look for calculators that provide guidance and expert advice on emissions reduction and performance improvement strategies.
  • Scenario testing: The ability to explore different intervention scenarios helps farmers make informed decisions on how to make footprint reductions while at the same time value-adding improvements.

In conclusion, farm carbon calculators (basic and advanced) play a vital role in promoting sustainable agriculture. Their impact on raising awareness and driving positive change cannot be ignored. As we strive for a greener future, let’s choose our calculators wisely and continue improving our farming practices to reduce carbon emissions and unlock new value streams.

Published on

18 April 2024


Check out our guide to getting started with farm life cycle assessment

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