The Carbon Gold Rush

Carol Singer Neuvelt

If you type “carbon footprint” into Google, you are likely to get upwards of 5 million hits, a sign of the recent gold rush-like interest in measuring the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) consumed by a person, a building, or a company.  For most businesses, this interest has prompted initiatives to measure and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  According to a recent NAEM poll, 75 percent of companies surveyed identified energy management and reduction as one of their top three sustainability priorities.

But there are many ways to reduce a company’s impact ranging from altering an existing manufacturing process to switching suppliers, or even changing the personal behaviors of a company’s employees.  So, how do companies really compare?

Like many environmental and sustainability metrics, there is a lot of variation in how companies set goals and report GHG emissions.  Because greenhouse gas reduction goals and programs are not being consistently developed, even the participants in the EPA Climate Leaders program use drastically different language.

Some have set goals specific to their category and segment.  Best Buy Co., Inc., for example, has pledged to reduce its emissions by 8 percent per square foot (from 2005 to 2012), while Burt’s Bees, Inc. plans to reduce its GHG’s by 35 percent per dollar sales (from 2006 to 2011). Still others, like Sprint Nextel Corp., have committed to absolute reductions of 15 percent by 2017, or pledged to become carbon neutral, as Dell, Inc. has, by 2012.

So with all the inconsistencies, how do we know which companies are finding “pay dirt” by making genuine strides, and who are just shuffling the pan?

When we did our first NAEM climate change event in New York in 2006, most companies were just trying to get a baseline measurement of their emissions. As we prepare for our upcoming Corporate GHG Strategies conference in Chicago in August, we’ve seen a huge jump in the number of companies who have met their initial goals and now are making progress toward more ambitious GHG reductions.   Across the board, however, companies continue to face common challenges such as developing clear boundaries, instituting long-term management processes and achieving authentic results.

While I strongly encourage transparency, I believe that many of the rankings out there are ultimately less important than the existence of actual programs and decision-making processes that help bring about real reductions over time.

Because as far as Mother Nature is concerned, relative success is just not good enough.

Understanding that one size will never fit all, I’m curious to know what metrics you think are most useful to understanding actual GHG reductions? What do you think is the best way to compare companies regardless of industry sector?

About Carol Singer Neuvelt

Carol Singer Neuvelt is Executive Director of NAEM. Her long-term perspective and insights into corporate EHS and sustainability best practices also have been featured in a variety of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, the Bureau of National Affairs, Environmental Leader, the National Safety Council’s Safety+Health magazine and Sustainable Life Media. She is the former Deputy Director for the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Public Liaison, where she managed the agency’s interaction with external stakeholders. Follow her on Twitter at @carol_neuvelt.

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  1. Bruce Klafter

    June 4, 2010

    Just so everyone is clear on the subject, Climate Leaders no longer allows its partners to use intensity goals. Their recent note to partners stated: “From 2002 to 2009, EPA allowed goals to be expressed as either absolute GHG emissions reductions or as decreases in GHG intensity. Absolute GHG reduction goals compare total GHG emissions in the goal year to those in a base year. GHG intensity goals allow a company to account for increases or decreases in production over time. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Each has advantages and disadvantages (see Comparing Absolute and Intensity Targets), and EPA encourages Partners to set both types of goals in parallel. Starting in 2010, however, EPA requires all new goals set under the program to be absolute goals. EPA made this shift in consultation with the Partners and views the shift as being consistent with the aims of the Climate Leaders Program and its improvement over time.”

  2. ‘So with all the inconsistencies, how do we know which companies are finding “pay dirt” by making genuine strides, and who are just shuffling the pan?’

    As Crosslands Bulletin has reported (ad nauseam), generally speaking it is not possible to tell.

    As for panning for gold, that pretty much seems to be a domain reserved for carbon emission trading speculators and lobbyists.

  3. Carol Singer

    June 4, 2010

    Bruce–thank you for the insight and clarification. I’m glad to hear that Climate Leaders has already made this change, and I’m not suprised as this program is, and has always been, a very robust resource for advancing GHG reduction efforts among industry.

  4. Elizabeth Kujan

    June 10, 2010

    Most impressive are those companies that track all three classic GHG scopes and are working on scope 4. Understanding that carbon footprint is a proxy for materials/energy consumption, having the data sliced a couple different ways – operation and product is valueable to different audiences.

    The comprehensiveness of tracking and the reporting level of GHG metrics says volumes. It’s more important than the values. Both values and the level of executive that reviews the values is readily available on (For those companies that disclose publically.) Those companies that have started tracking water are are the forefront.

    What I’d like to see is more information made available through non-disclosure agreements to customers and within industry forum. The purpose would be to improve ratings as a supplier (where applicable) and/or to drive sector specific accounting standards.

    Don’t forget toxic emissions too. Admittedly this area tends to be driven by regulations rather than by business case. Nonetheless, companies willing to absorb the cost of re-designing product sooner rather than later to obviate toxics in environment and humans, should be noted and lauded.

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