The challenge of calculating our company carbon emissions

Written by Tom Greenwood - October 30, 2023

When Vineeta and I founded Wholegrain in 2007, we had a vision to use the company as an experiment in sustainable business. At the time, corporate carbon footprinting was in its infancy but it was something that we felt important to embrace, even if it was BP who pushed into the public consciousness just a few years earlier. 

We enthusiastically set about trying to calculate our own company emissions using whatever information and tools we could find. It was scrappy and no doubt highly inaccurate, but it was definitely educational. Over the years since then, we’ve tried to continuously improve, using better tools and, at times, doing things entirely our own way. We even released an open source spreadsheet for small business carbon footprint calculations a few years ago, before eventually deciding to switch back to a more modern online software tool. Sadly that tool didn’t quite do what we needed so this year, we went back to the drawing board and reviewed our options. 

We could go back to doing it ourselves but that takes a huge amount of time that we simply don’t have at the moment. We could pay a consultant to do it for us but at the current time I would rather direct any money we do have towards protecting and restoring nature than measuring carbon. So the final option was to find a new tool that would give us what we needed, without a prohibitive investment of time or money.

After much confusion, the team helped me make the decision to use Compare Your Footprint, an online software developed by our friends at fellow B Corp Green Element.

The main reasons for choosing Compare Your Footprint were its combination of comprehensive functionality, scientific robustness and affordability. Furthermore, it felt like a great opportunity to work with a fellow B Corp and hopefully offer some value back to them in the way of ongoing feedback.

The results are in for 2022/23

Switching tools for carbon accounting always highlights the fuzziness of carbon accounting practices, as the data never perfectly maps between tools and it can be hard to do ‘like for like’ comparisons between years. This can be a little problematic. This time, we knew it would be a bigger issue than ever, since one of our hopes for the new approach was to get a more complete picture of our Scope 3 emissions, which would therefore naturally mean that we are reporting higher emissions. 

And that’s exactly what happened. Our annual emissions for 2021/22 were 11.3 tonnes CO2e or 0.6 tonnes per employee, which is similar to the years preceding it. The new tool used for 2022/23 estimated our annual emissions at 27.7 tonnes CO2e or 1.2 tonnes per employee. In other words, it had doubled on a per employee basis and more than doubled in total. This is important to highlight because the operations of the company had not fundamentally changed. The actual emissions of our company were probably very similar to the year before, but the amount reported is significantly higher just because of the more robust methodology used by the software.

Scope 3 is a grey area

Carbon emissions are now calculated following the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which divides emissions into three ‘scopes’. Scope 1 essentially means that you burned the fuel yourself, Scope 2 means that you paid someone else to burn fuel on your behalf, like buying electricity from a power company, and Scope 3 is pretty much everything else. 

The observant mind will notice some interesting anomalies about this system. The first is that there is no Scope Zero, for where the fossil fuels are taken out of the ground, which would arguably be by far the easiest place to account for them. The second is that this system of three scopes essentially leads to triple accounting, since everything in your Scope 2 should be in someone else’s Scope 1 and everything in your Scope 3 should be in someone else’s Scope 2. Which leads us to the final anomaly, which is that for most service businesses, the majority of emissions fall into Scope 3, which is extremely difficult to accurately track, or even define what should be included. An environmental consultant recently told me that “Scope 3 is the Wild West” and I have to agree.

For us, in 2022/23, 96.6% of our emissions were reported in Scope 3. The reason that our reported Scope 3 emissions ballooned so much this year is that I wanted to be as comprehensive as possible, but this meant including things that we simply don’t have data for. The way that tools like Compare Your Footprint solve this problem is by using what is called ‘Spend Based Data’, which essentially means that generic data for the carbon emissions of different types of products and services are used to estimate your emissions based on how much money you spent on those things.

This leads to some intriguing results, like 31% of our emissions apparently coming from our purchase of Business Services, such as accounting, staff training, membership of trade bodies, insurance, legal advice and computer repairs. Whether this is realistic or not, I honestly couldn’t tell you. The problem of course is that spend based accounting implies that spending more money increases your emissions, and vice versa, whereas in reality the opposite might be true because you might intentionally pay more for a product or service that has less environmental impact. 

Likewise, this approach can’t make any distinction between products that you buy new and those that you buy used. For example, we have a policy to try to buy refurbished IT equipment but this doesn’t get accounted for in this year’s carbon reporting. This isn’t really a fault of the software, but a broader limitation with carbon accounting methodologies that are trying to account for things that don’t have clear primary data.

The hidden successes

What you also can’t see in this year’s carbon reporting, are the things that we have reduced in previous years. This is a reflection that one year’s report shows what is present, but doesn’t show what isn’t present.

For example, it could easily go unnoticed that our report doesn’t include any emissions for aviation. This is because many years ago in a previous report, we found that our single biggest source of emissions was flying. That led us to introduce a ‘no fly policy’, which drastically reduced our emissions for all subsequent years. Likewise, we previously saw that the emissions from the electricity consumption of home working were significant, so we introduced an incentive to use renewable energy at home for our team, which has encouraged those who can to make the switch, and helped to reduce these emissions.

Ongoing challenges 

There is always a question in my mind as to what the main purpose of carbon accounting is. Is it for transparency? Is it to provide the data needed for offsetting? Or is it to help provide insights so that we can learn and take practical action? To some extent it is all three, but for me, the ability to learn and take action is by far the most important. So what can we learn this year?

One of the things that stands out from the data is the use of gas, which heats the office in a combined heat and power system, as well as heating our team’s homes to keep them warm. That currently accounts for about 4.4 tonnes CO2e and as we are based in a fairly cold country where most buildings are heated by burning gas, this is a problem without an obvious solution, especially as we don’t own any of the buildings in question.

Digital services is a big area of ambiguity, accounting for 25% of our emissions this year but, as it is primarily calculated using spend based data, it is anybody’s guess how realistic that is. You might think that as digital sustainability pioneers, we should have good data on this, but the honest truth is that we don’t. Yes, we have some decent data for websites but most of this segment is actually our purchase of other digital services, of which we use a lot, and most software providers still don’t offer meaningful energy or emissions data to their customers. 

As for the website part, this is actually only partially included because we only define websites owned and operated by us as being within our own Scope 3 emissions. Therefore, a lot of client websites are not included and would instead be reported on the client’s Scope 3 emissions. I know some people do this differently and it seems to be very much a matter of opinion what the right approach is.

Next steps

Moving forward, we now need to update our approach to carbon offsetting (or carbon syncing as I prefer to call it), which we will report separately and then hopefully spend some time exploring this year’s data a bit more to see what practical action it can inspire and how we might extend our learning into next year. Onwards!