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Demystifying Carbon Accounting: It’s Easier Than You Think

As the conversation surrounding climate change heats up, more and more individuals are tracking their carbon footprints. This goes for businesses as well. From regulations to public pressure, monitoring and accounting for carbon emissions is becoming increasingly important.

But where to start? And what exactly is a carbon footprint? How the heck can you figure it out without a lot of expertise?

Despite the word “accounting,” the process of carbon accounting is easier than it sounds. The concept is fairly simple: you take stock of the total Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions generated by your business’s activities each year. This is also called a “Greenhouse Gas Inventory.” A carbon footprint totals all of the Greenhouse Gasses emitted during the course of doing business, such as the use of electricity, burning fuel, and recharging refrigerants.  Each of these activities emit different types of greenhouse gasses with different potencies.  A carbon footprint must be reported in one figure (typically metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents), so the process of calculating your footprint converts the “global warming potential” of each gas to that of carbon dioxide.  Sulfur Hexaflouride (SF6), for example, has 23,900 times the potential of carbon dioxide to trap heat in the atmosphere within a century. Therefore, when even small levels of emissions are converted to their carbon equivalency, it’s a big number! Ultimately, “carbon accounting” allows your organization to total the emissions of all sources and gasses to arrive at one number that can be tracked internally or compared to other carbon footprints.

Step 1: Inventory Your Emissions.  The first step of this process is to think about your company’s sources of emissions. How is your building heated? Are there any boilers onsite? Purchased electricity, heat, and steam are often the largest sources of emissions, and also are the easiest to tally. The usage information for these sources should be available from your utility company. Even if your company only leases part of a building and there’s no sub-metering, that’s okay. The key to carbon accounting is to use the most reliable, consistent data. There will always be some gaps and some estimation; just be sure to write down any of your assumptions.

Your company likely has some sources of emissions on-site as well. Any company-owned vehicle generates GHGs. To total this impact, you need to know the fuel usage and mileage traveled. For owned buildings, there may be more direct emissions from equipment such as boilers, on-site heating, and backup generators. Facilities managers are great resources in locating these sources. There can also be GHG emissions from the charge or re-charge of refrigerants and fire suppression systems. For any of these types of on-site equipment, the important data to collect is the amount of fuel combusted and the amounts recharged for refrigerants, gases or other chemicals used.

Sometimes, a company may want to track its indirect (Scope 3) GHG emissions that are a consequence of value chain activities, such as employee commutes or emissions associated with customer use of a product. This is often not mandatory under certain reporting schemes, but it helps to gain a more comprehensive understanding of your company’s carbon footprint.  It can also help you identify more opportunities for reduction. For a complete list of Scope 3 emissions you can track, check out the Greenhouse Gas Protocol’s guidance.

Step 2: Calculate! Once you’ve found your company’s sources of emissions and the quantities of usage, you’re ready to calculate the carbon emissions. To do this, there are many free, online tools. They range from a single spreadsheet, like the EPA Climate Leader’s spreadsheet, to more comprehensive tools, such as EnergyStar Portfolio Manager.  All you have to do is enter in your buildings, sources, and usage for each source, and the tools will do the rest.

That’s all there is to it! Though it may seem like a daunting challenge, once you identify and start tracking of sources of emissions for your business, establishing a carbon footprint is pretty simple. From there, it’s just a matter of rounding up the information and plugging it into a tool. And even better, the process itself is informative. Your company’s largest sources of emissions may be surprising, and present opportunities for improvement you hadn’t thought of before.

For a more in-depth discussion of GHG emissions and carbon footprinting, check out our white paper.

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