Laboratory's carbon footprint: Part 1.


William Naismith, Principal Sustainability Consultant

Life science and Scope 3 emissions.

Applying life sciences can help tackle the challenges that we face in the UK and the world today — antimicrobial resistance, healthy living and pandemics — to the benefit of all. Life science organisations innately support the social pillar of ESG.

And whilst safety and quality will always be critical priorities, environmental sustainability is rapidly moving up the agenda in response to investors, staff and customers. The number of companies with approved science-based targets rose from 7 in 2019 to 104 in 2022; typically companies are aiming to achieve net zero carbon between 2035 and 2050.

Scope 3 emissions represent, by far, the greatest share of a laboratory’s carbon footprint and therefore demand attention beyond merely being measured. These are the indirect emissions that occur across the value chain, from the manufacture of acetone to the end-of-life disposal of medical packaging

Carbon hotspots.

The triple helix of universities, government and industry has enabled the UK to develop into a life science superpower. However, the carbon footprint of the many wet and dry laboratories that have facilitated this growth is substantial (the pharmaceutical business is significantly more emission-intensive than the car industry)

There is an urgent need to implement scalable technical solutions and drive radical cultural and behavioural change. On the face of it, the life science sector faces a conundrum: how to balance ambitious decarbonisation goals with financial realities of the large capital investments required to do so. However, McKinsey’s analysis of a representative pharmaceutical company’s emissions profile reveals promising findings; they believe 60% of total emissions can be abated at net-zero cost.

Sustainable solutions can also add value to an organisation’s bottom line.

Buyers can lock in contracts for low-carbon products before regulation pushes up demand, drug manufacturing processes can be made more efficient by reducing the waste from synthesis and sellers can charge more for green products.

Decoupling carbon emissions.

According to McKinsey, emissions from procurement activities constitute half of the total emissions of a life science organisation. The majority of these emissions, approximately 70%, are derived from raw materials. These include active pharmaceutical ingredients, additives, and process chemicals. The remaining 30% of procurement emissions are primarily attributed to packaging.

Climbing the first rung of the supply chain decarbonisation ladder involves engaging new suppliers with lower emissions and compelling existing suppliers to reduce the carbon intensity of their operations.

Driving supply chain carbon reduction is all about normalising sustainability; treating Scope 3 emissions as any other decision-making factor such as cost, programme and quality.

Enabling a climate conscious supply chain can also have other benefits: such as, supporting supply chain resilience in a changing climate, whilst pre-empting tougher regulations on the carbon content of goods and services.

Be sure to look for part two where we discuss Culture-setters and the scramble for data.