Businesses have spent years talking about climate change, highlighting how concerned they are and how they are pursuing initiatives to lower their own impact – but recently there has been a real shift in this conversation. Where once sustainability was often left to certain teams and initiatives within an organization, those commitments are now being made in a holistic way, promising to account for and reduce the environmental impact of businesses as a whole.
It’s something that’s being driven, of course, by growing consumer and governmental pressures. The reality of the climate crisis is becoming ever clearer, and business leaders are ever more conscious of what effective action should look like. While we will continue to see marketing around specific changes, like adopting biodegradable plastic or zero-emissions vehicles, it no longer makes sense to have no overarching strategy to those changes.
At the same time, these more muscular pledges – like deadlines to achieve net-zero and KPIs for product reuse and recycling – are likely to raise a simple question in the minds of consumers: what, really, is the carbon cost of this product or service? When I choose a television, or a hotel, or an email provider, what is the comparative environmental impact of that choice?
It’s a good question, and one which is surprisingly difficult to answer.
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To take one example, we could quickly list out many of the more obvious sources of emissions associated with a television. The energy consumed by its manufacture, the transport systems that carry it, and the emissions of any warehouses or retail sites it is stored in are all relevant. So, too, are the carbon costs of sourcing and processing the raw materials (whether recycled or first-life) that go into it, and the energy consumed by operating it during its lifetime, and whatever energy was involved in its design process. Then, we must add any impacts associated with packaging, company offices, marketing, and staff transport, not to mention those incurred when the consumer travels to look at their options – or even just browses the websites of manufacturers and retailers.
In short, even a relatively simple consumer item has, sitting behind it, a vastly complex web of emissions that a business might need to account for when assessing and reducing its environmental impact.
Specialists have developed a short-hand way of identifying and categorizing these emissions: Scope 1 contains any emissions produced on-site, such as by running a piece of manufacturing machinery; Scope 2 contains any emissions created in order to power owned sites, such as the electricity used by an office space; and Scope 3 contains all of the emissions generated before and after a product or service is under the company’s direct control, from raw material sourcing to end-of-life disposal.
Auditing, understanding, and appropriately analyzing this web is an enormous challenge, for any business. Perhaps the promising note in this picture, however, is that it is at heart a data problem – and one thing that we have become much better at in recent years is working with vast amounts of data.
Big data for a big challenge
Indeed, many businesses will now have some level of in-house environmental tracking, building carbon measurement into systems used to monitor productivity, logistics, service usage, and other business intelligence tools. Of course, following a decade or more of digital transformation, this is easier than ever. If, for instance, we are already receiving real-time updates on the location and speed of every vehicle in a fleet, then the infrastructure for measuring CO2 is already in place.
The catch, however, is that there is no common standard for that measurement activity. This is not necessarily a problem for Scope 1, where all emissions are within the business’s own systems, or for Scope 2, where the relationship between power and emissions can be fairly clearly articulated. Consider, however, if our television manufacturer, selling both directly to consumers and via retailers, tried to understand the environmental impact of its post-manufacturing delivery logistics.
To major retailers, it might run its own logistics fleet to deliver to their warehouses, but then would need to receive reports from each retailer (of which there might be hundreds) sharing specific data about how it gets those televisions to customers’ home. For direct-to-consumer sales, the company might use one or more third-party delivery firms, each of which again would need to share data.
For just one aspect of a business’s emissions, this quickly starts to look like a very labor-intensive data collection effort with no built-in mechanism to demonstrate the validity of the data being received. Such problems are only compounded when the data is stored in various ways – measuring in grams of CO2e rather than kilograms, for instance, or using different database format.
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Measurement for life
There are, naturally, potential solutions to this challenge. One would be to rely on estimated averages for different emissions-producing activities, rather than trying to measure directly: calculating, for example, the amount of carbon emitted per kilometer by your delivery logistics and the average distance a product travels and adding that as a flat rate of carbon per product.
Such an approach, however, will always involve an element of estimation – and, over time, those estimates will tend to become increasingly inaccurate, requiring recalculation to maintain usefulness and confidence. It would be far better to make the process of gathering specific emissions data and combining it into an overall view of industrial footprint viable in the real world.
That is the goal that sits behind The Open Group Open Footprint Forum. Since August 2020, we have been working to create an open standard for tracking environmental footprint data, unifying data recording, processing, and sharing across industries.
While it is still early days for the standard, we are making progress towards a vision of making it possible to automate the calculation of greenhouse gas data – and, eventually, data such as water usage and landfill – giving companies real-time, reliable insight into their impact. With a defined API to access the data, businesses will be able to cascade environmental insight through the value chain, just as they now contribute to their sectors without necessarily having contact with all the other stakeholders in it.
Transparency in emissions production is a global concern: not just businesses, but governments, regulators, third-sector actors, and consumers all have a stake in understanding where our planetary impact is occurring and why. By crystalizing today’s data-collection work into a common, open, vendor-neutral standard, we will trigger more significant action.
Solving the climate crisis demands clearer conversations, stronger leadership buy-in, better training, greater support, and more forceful deadlines. We get there through data and open standards.
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Heidi Karlsson, Director, Open Footprint Forum, The Open Group