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The Carbon Footprint Bandwagon: Connecting the Conversation to Climate

I can’t tell you how many times I have been in meetings with corporate sustainability teams where someone in the group will make a comment about “we’re not doing sustainability because of global warming” or “I don’t believe in that changing climate stuff,” but then they will proceed to talk to us about calculating a carbon footprint and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG emissions). Sometimes they are pursuing reductions because of customer pressure, or sometimes it is related to public reporting pressure. Whatever reason your company has for identifying its carbon footprint, I am here to tell you that, like it or not, measuring and reducing GHG emissions IS about climate change.

Now, of course, there are other benefits to reducing emissions. GHG emissions are largely tied to energy for most businesses. Reducing energy use is an easy business case to make because it has an immediate impact on the bottom line; it saves money. But, the reason that NGO’s, investors, and customers are pressuring companies to report on their carbon footprint is not really because they want you to save energy and money – it is because of the climate. This is because they are concerned with either the direct impacts of climate change or the expectation that greenhouse gasses will be regulated and/or priced one day – because of climate change. Either way, the big concern is about the future impacts of the climate and the dramatically greater costs we will face if we don’t address it now.

Climate change is the elephant in the room, so let’s be clear. If your organization decides to calculate report on, and reduce GHG emissions, you are sending a message to stakeholders. By doing so, you imply that you understand and are working to reduce emissions to address the potential implications of a changing climate for your business, be those physical, regulatory, or other. If you don’t believe that, you might as well just stick with reporting on energy use and energy reductions and call it a day.

For organizations that are intent on measuring and reporting on emissions, having individuals who haven’t connected calculating a carbon footprint to the climate can actually be a great opportunity for conversations that get your company thinking about sustainability more strategically. And it may not be as difficult as you think.

So, what is the best approach? There are many, many perspectives out there on how best to talk about the subject. Should you use fear or hope? Should you be scientific or anecdotal? Should you try to appeal to people’s connection to nature or their concern for the future facing their grandchildren?

In a business context, I find that these four rules of thumb are very helpful:

  1. Stick to credible research. Use the data with the greatest degree of scientific consensus behind it and stay current. The most credible source is the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC) reports, in this case the Fifth Assessment Report (WGI AR5).(More on this in our next post).
  2. Keep it simple. The AR5 Summary for Policymakers is very helpful, but still complex. Identify a few key data points that demonstrate what you want to say, explain them, use visuals whenever possible, and provide options for more information if anyone in the group would like to dig deeper.
  3. Avoid drama. Keep it unemotional and avoid injecting personal opinion (see rule 1) or “color” to the presentation. Pretend that you are reading from the company financials and err on the side of less is more.
  4. Circumvent debates. If there is someone in the room that has a different perspective, acknowledge that respectfully. If the person is critical to the decision making process and his/her opinion may keep the rest of the group from moving forward, suggest that the entire team review the IPCC policymakers brief and hold a second meeting to discuss only reflections on the document. In that second meeting, the group can decide what its position is. If the group remains divided or unconvinced, you will need to decide what implications this has for the company’s actions as it relates to calculating and reporting on GHG emissions.

While there is a potential for the discussion to be heated, in my experience these conversations tend to go much better than we believe they will. Whoever is doing the presenting to the team, should take time to become educated on the subject matter so that they are able to speak knowledgeably and confidently. Chances are he or she will be a lot more knowledgeable than anyone else in the room, and the reaction might just surprise you. As an alternative, you can bring a third party in to lead the discussion. I am less of a fan of this strategy, but it can be an effective depending on who the person/organization is and the dynamics of your organization. Consider carefully whether an internal person or external person will be better received with the specific group of people you have assembled. If you choose to bring in an outside “expert” make sure that your team view them as being credible. One approach is to go to a trusted source, such as your auditor (many of these companies have sustainability specialists now) and ask them to present.

Whichever way you go, you are certain to come away from a candid and informed discussion with a better understanding about why (or why not) to calculate your carbon footprint and address emissions. This will build solidarity and avoid confusion and surprises down the line.

In our next post, we will talk about key takeaway points form the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report that you can use to help fuel your discussion.