Laboratory's carbon footprint: Part 2.


William Naismith, Principal Sustainability Consultant

The sustainability aspirations of life science organisations.

In part one we looked at life science and Scope 3 emissions.

Culture-setters are critically important in driving progress.

Culture setters — scientists who seek to affect significant change by actively developing, promoting and defending innovative ideas — may play an important role within this context.

There is a substantial opportunity to adopt a more creative and resourceful approach to foster innovation in experimental design and inputs. This would give sustainability considerations equal importance to other parameters such as result quality, yields, and process speeds.

Finding ways to harmonise sustainability with health and safety is essential. This could involve addressing and reducing solvent incineration and generating more risk assessment data related to contaminants.

Example: AstraZeneca API synthesis.

Active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) form the backbone of medicinal drugs. The production of APIs contributes to nearly a quarter of AstraZeneca’s carbon footprint from manufacturing. They employed an innovative approach to estimate waste volumes across various processes involved in the manufacture, reducing the number of stages in the process from 16 to 9 and cutting waste by 60%.

Given the lengthy duration between the development and production of drugs, it is imperative to start considering carbon reduction in manufacturing immediately. The life science sector can embrace the circular economy to unlock carbon reductions.

The scramble for data.

It is common for some emissions sources to be relatively easy to quantify (such as electricity consumption) and some to be much harder to understand with certainty (catering emissions for instance). Because this process requires subjective judgement, there is a risk that the activities factored into Scope 3 reporting are those that are most easily measured, as opposed to the most material activities.

An incremental approach to data collection can ease the burden — leverage the data you can most readily obtain – to focus efforts where they will have the greatest impact. In many cases, however, there is still a lack of quality data to underpin day-to-day decisions.

As highlighted at a recent sustainability conference,

uncertainty around energy consumption inhibits the ability to make decisions, such as whether to reuse old equipment or buy new, more efficient equipment, or whether single use plastics should be recycled or replaced with autoclaved glass.

UCL LCA analysis.

Life cycle carbon assessments can guide these decisions. A study by academics at University College London found that the carbon footprint per researcher, from consumables was 660 kgCO2e/year (about four times the emissions from commuting). Polymer production and the extraction of raw materials constitute the most significant share of emissions, ranging from 26% to 50%. Incineration, where applicable, contributes an additional 30% to 54%. Interestingly, transportation accounts for only 5% of the total carbon.


The sustainability aspirations of life science organisations go beyond the physical infrastructure of their buildings; scientific discoveries will advance the boundaries of human knowledge and improve global health. But what are the opportunities to enhance the environmental sustainability of research and innovation endeavour itself?

The majority of the life science sector’s carbon emissions are Scope 3. Whilst unpacking these emissions is incredibly complex, that is not an excuse for inaction. Working collaboratively with the supply chain, embedding sustainable operations and embracing the circular economy are all key to cutting carbon.